Politically motivated arrests and persecution during the lockdown regime
The Operative Headquarters under the Cabinet of Ministers was established on February 27 which confirmed the first case of infection in Azerbaijan a day later. A lock-down regime is declared in Azerbaijan. Shops, cafes, restaurants, malls, most of the service industry is closed down, leaving the home is only allowed for a limited period with a special permit.
Administrative arrests and detentions during the lock-down regime
On March 17th, the Parliament adopted changes to the law on “Information, Informatization and Protection of Information” and Code on Administrative Offences. Preventing the spread of the manipulative news and misinformation on social media as part of COVID-19 response was brought as a justification for the amendments.
Immediately after the amendments, some people who were criticising the government’s COVID-19 response measures on social media are summoned to police stations, were given verbal warnings and some were forced to post a statement of refutation on their social media accounts.
EMDS reports that, so far, approximately 20 people have been warned for their social media posts and 10 people have faced administrative arrests.
After the decision of the Cabinet of Ministers to limit the freedom of movement of citizens, police officers conducted raids in streets where they either fined or arrested the people outdoors who did not have the relevant permit. Over the last two weeks, more than 20 thousand people have been fined up to 100 AZN and 45 people faced administrative arrests.
EMDS also reports the cases where the rules of the lock-down regime have been abused against opposition activists with political motivation. Throughout the declared lock-down regime, the following people have been accused of breaking the lock-down regime’s rules and were sentenced to administrative arrests:
- On March 21, Anar Malikov, member of the ‘Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan’s (PFPA hereinafter) was detained and sentenced to 10 days of administrative arrest.
- On April 8, Faig Amirli, assistant to the chair of the PFPA was kidnapped in street and sentenced for 30 days of administrative arrest.
- The members of the ‘Azerbaijan Democracy and Welfare Movement’ Shakir Mammadli and Vafadar Aliyev were arrested on 6th and 8th of April, respectively, and both were accused of disobeying the legal demands of the police. Accordingly, Shakir Mammadli faced 15 days of administrative arrest, while Vafadar Aliyev was sentenced to 30 days of administrative detention.
- Ruslan Amirli, the activist of the PFPA was arrested on 9 April and sentenced to 30 days of administrative arrest. He is accused of breaking the rules of the lock-down regime as well.
On April 7th, the people kept in Athlete’s Village, Baku due to possible COVID-19 infection held a demonstration. After they protested the state of not being allowed to leave for their homes even though the pre-determined quarantine period is over, criminal cases were launched against two of the protesters, according to the human rights lawyer Javad Javadov.
Politically motivated arrests during the lock-down regime
President Ilham Aliyev, in his address to the nation for the Nowruz spring holiday, mentioned the possibility of applying extraordinary measures against the opposition within the campaign of combatting the COVID-19 outbreak. The Deputy Prime Minister Ali Ahmadov called the leader of the one of the main opposition forces, PFPA, “virus” and stated that the government is combatting with two viruses simultaneously.
After the abovementioned speech of the president, the pressure on some activists and opposition members has increased and a new wave of persecution has started.
On March 22, the member of the Coordination Council of the National Council of Democratic Forces and Musavat Party, Tofig Yagublu, was detained and accused of hitting another car with his car and committing the actions of hooliganism. A criminal case is opened against him with the article of ‘hooliganism committed with the application of a weapon or subject used as a weapon, accompanying with the application of violence on citizens, as well as destruction or damage of another person’s property’ and he is held for three months in pretrial custody.
Another criminal case was also opened against Elchin Mammad, editor-in-chief of the “For Ascendance” website in Sumgayit, who is accused of theft. Elchin Mammad regards the accusation as politically motivated and states that it is about his active participation in the last Parliamentary Elections, on 9 February 2020, as a candidate.
The member of PFPA, Agil Humbatov, was detained by plain cloth people after he posted an address to the president on social media, criticising government’s social policy and was forcibly placed to the Psychiatric Hospital №1. He was later released on 1st April, however, after criticising the conditions of the hospital on social media, he was arrested again on 2nd April and put back to the hospital. He states that he does not suffer from any psychological condition and forced treatment of him against his will is related to his criticism pointed at the social policy of the government on social media.
On April 8, police officers raided the home of the parents of opposition activist, member of Nida Civic Movement and ex-political prisoner Ilkin Rustamzada and surrounded the home of himself. Police claim that Ilkin has violated the rules of the lock-down regime since he moved to new home. However, Ilkin Rustamzada states that he has moved before the special lock-down measures and relates the pressure to the petition he started a few days ago calling the authorities to halt the payments of loans and bills during the lock-down regime and provide the worst-off families with social allowances. According to him, he was already getting threats via the “WhatsApp” and recently, he is being blackmailed, the intimate photos of his family members are circulated over the social media platforms, the phone number of his wife is shared on websites offering escort services as part of the smearing campaign against him.
The pardon, the president signed, on 6th April caused the rage of the human rights defenders. None of the 101 political prisoners is among the pardoned. The decree released 176 people over the age of 65 with health issues. However, the member of the Muslim Solidarity Movement, 65 years old Ruhulla Akhundzada, could not benefit the decree. He protests the injustice and requested the president to deprive him of the citizenship. Another member of the movement, political prisoner Sahil Rzali has started a hunger strike in a protest at the decree. He is suffering from lung disease and states that the feeding condition in prison is dangerous for his health.
Social care package and shortcomings
Currently, the biggest discontent over the country is because of the not comprehensive social care measures by the government for the unemployed people and citizens stopped working during the lock-down regime. Economic experts regard the 395 million AZN, allocated by the government for social care packages, as not comprehensive, leaving the majority behind and state that the amount of the designed social allowance is not enough for adequate living standards.
The website for unemployed people to get registered to be able to benefit the social allowances of the government has caused social discontent as well. Allegedly, the website freezes frequently, runs slowly and sometimes does not work at all. Huge queues are formed in front of the local employment offices and pauses are witnessed in service. Undoubtedly, the social outrage is to be strengthened amid the COVID-19 outbreak, if the government does not put forward more comprehensive and inclusive packages with more uninterrupted service methods.