Anar Mammadli and (almost all) his friends free in Azerbaijan

Arriving on Sunday, 4 May 2014, in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, Azerbaijan was to be elected chair of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. The human rights community was way more worried about the fact that on Monday the hearings of Anar Mammadli would begin in the Court on Grave Crimes.

I remember when the plane landed, having a knot in the stomach. Anar Mammadli had been arrested on 16 December 2013 and the beginning of his court hearings were no good sign; Azerbaijan’s authorities wanted to liquidate his NGO and silence civil society, using the arrest of Anar Mammadli and his colleague Bashir Suleymanli as an example of how far they were willing to go.

At the time, Anar Mammadli and Bashir Suleymanli were the only leading human rights defenders in prison. They were not the only ones detained on politically motivated reasons. Another one in prison already at the time was Azerbaijan’s political opposition leading figure Ilgar Mammadov. So many others were detained for political reasons, including N!DA activists.

Many more were arrested since May 2014, in an unprecedented crackdown. To date, many of them were released.

The lawyer Intigam Aliyev, the journalist Khadija Ismayilova and the politician Ilgar Mammadov remain behind bars, as symbols of the detention of leading figures of the civil society and the political opposition, along many others detained for politically motivated reasons.
Anar Mammadli in June 2013 in Geneva, surrounded by HRHF’s Geneva Office team at the United Nations, at the occasion of an expert meeting of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of association and assembly Maina Kiai.

Back to May 2014, I remember well Anar Mammadli entering the court-room in Baku. I saw two of his hearings. Warm days in Azerbaijan’s capital. Anar Mammadli’s wife was there both times, his colleagues, too, and many international diplomats. Witnesses were called to the bar, not knowing why, ignoring what harm Anar Mammadli had done to them and some not even knowing Anar Mammadli at all. Anar Mammadli was brought in, police officers surrounding him, sitting next to him, as if he would be an immediate threat. The court officers were present but felt absent, ignoring the arguments of Anar Mammadli’s defence, answering their mobile phones, insulting the lawyers and being rude with the audience, including myself.

Anar Mammadli’s trial was no trial, it was a show-trial. I had called it a parody of a court-room.

When speaking today with Anar Mammadli on a secured line, all those memories were present. I thought of the incredible strength Anar Mammadli had, showing humour and laughing generously during the phone call. We heard Anar Mammadli as we remembered him, full of energy, determined!

Today, all of those working on Azerbaijan are all happy Anar Mammadli is reunited with his family, his friends, his colleagues. We are so happy he was released with many other colleagues, who never should have spent a day in prison to begin with, as my colleague Ane Tusvik Bonde said recently in an interview.

My colleague Ane Tusvik Bonde, reacting to the release of human rights defenders, journalists and activists in Azerbaijan in March 2016

None should be fooled though; Anar Mammadli and others were released, but nobody in Azerbaijan willing to promote human rights is truly free before laws are changed, practices ban arbitrariness by those in power, and the judiciary gains the power to be truly independent.