The release of RFE/RL journalist Khadija Ismayilova from an Azerbaijani prison has drawn applause from Western officials and international rights groups. But it also highlighted the plight of numerous other activists and journalists widely considered political prisoners who remain behind bars in the oil-rich former Soviet republic.
“This is a positive signal that can be replicated in other cases,” Giacomo Fassina, a spokesman for European Parliament President Martin Schulz, told RFE/RL following Ismayilova’s release on May 25.
Dozens of journalists, opposition activists, and other critics of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev remain behind bars in cases they and their supporters call retribution for their political activities. The U.S.-based group Freedom House says there are still more than 80 political prisoners in Azerbaijan.
Their arrests and prosecutions have come amid a broad clampdown on dissent in Azerbaijan over the past three years that has been condemned by Western governments and prominent rights watchdog groups.
At least five journalists considered victims of politically motivated prosecutions remain jailed on a range of charges, including alleged hooliganism and drug-related offenses, according to media-freedom groups and Western officials.
The office of Dunja Mijatovic, representative on freedom of the media for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), urged Baku in a May 25 statement to “release all remaining members of the media and bloggers still in prison today in Azerbaijan, including Seymur Hazi, Nijat [Nicat] Aliyev, Abdul Abilov, Rashad Ramazanov and Araz Guliyev.”
Numerous political activists remain imprisoned as well, including several from the opposition Popular Front Party and the civic youth movement N!DA.
EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini’s office said Ismayilova’s release “marks a further step in progress toward Azerbaijan’s compliance with its international commitments,” and called for “the release and rehabilitation of all those currently imprisoned or under restriction of movement in Azerbaijan on political grounds.”
Aliyev has demonstrated a willingness to heed calls for the release of those seen as political prisoners — a label Baku has vehemently rejected.
Prior to the decision by Azerbaijan’s Supreme Court to reduce Ismayilova’s punishment to a suspended sentence, he issued a snap presidential pardon of 14 of these prisoners, including members of the N!DA civic youth group and human rights activist Rasul Cafarov.
But other N!DA activists remain in custody, including Bayram Mammadov, who earlier this month was charged with drug possession and placed in pretrial detention. Fellow N!DA member Giyasaddin Ibrahim, who was detained together with Mammadov, faces similar charges.
They were purportedly involved in writing graffiti on a statue of former President Heidar Aliyev in Baku ahead of Flower Day on May 10, which celebrates the late leader. Other N!DA members have previously been charged with drug possession.
The numerous Popular Party activists who remain jailed include the party’s deputy chairman, Fuad Qahramanli, who was arrested in Baku in December. His lawyer said he was charged with publicly calling for the overthrow of the government and inciting ethnic, religious, and social hatred.
Other prominent critical voices currently imprisoned include Ilqar Mammadov, the leader of the Republican Alternative (REAL) movement who remains in jail despite a ruling by the European Court for Human Rights that his arrest was politically motivated.
Ismayilova’s release came just three days before Azerbaijan celebrates its annual Republic Day with a mass amnesty, proposed by the country’s first lady, that anticipates the release of some 3,500 prisoners convicted of minor crimes.
It remains unclear, however, whether those who are considered political prisoners might be freed, given the criminal nature of the offenses they have been charged with or convicted of.
The prisoners and their supporters say the criminal charges are trumped-up.
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