e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
Although the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, judges did not function independently of the executive branch. The judiciary remained largely corrupt and inefficient. Many verdicts were legally insupportable and largely unrelated to the evidence presented during the trial. Outcomes frequently appeared predetermined. Courts often failed to investigate allegations of torture and inhuman treatment of detainees in police custody.
The Ministry of Justice controlled the Judicial Legal Council. The council appoints a judicial selection committee (six judges, a prosecutor, a lawyer, a council representative, a Ministry of Justice representative, and a legal scholar) that administers the judicial selection examination and oversees the long-term judicial training and selection process.
Credible reports indicated that judges and prosecutors took instruction from the Presidential Administration and the Ministry of Justice, particularly in cases of interest to international observers. There were credible allegations judges routinely accepted bribes.
The law requires public trials except in cases involving state, commercial, or professional secrets or confidential, personal, or family matters. The law mandates the presumption of innocence in criminal cases. It also mandates the right to be informed promptly of charges; to a fair, timely, and public trial (although trials can be closed in some situations, e.g., cases related to national security); to be present at the trial; to communicate with an attorney of their choice (or have one provided at public expense if unable to pay); to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense; to free interpretation as necessary from the moment charged through all appeals; to confront witnesses and present witnesses’ evidence at trial; and not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Both defendants and prosecutors have the right to appeal. Authorities did not respect these provisions in many cases widely considered politically motivated.
Judges at times failed to read verdicts publicly or explain their decisions, leaving defendants without knowledge of the reasoning behind the judgment. Judges also limited the defendant’s right to speak. In the appeal of Giyas Ibrahimov, the judge ordered the microphone in the cage for the accused to be switched off to prevent Ibrahimov’s closing statement.
Authorities sometimes limited independent observation of trials by having plainclothes police and others occupy courtroom seats. Information regarding trial times and locations was generally available.
Although the constitution prescribes equal status for prosecutors and defense attorneys, judges often favored prosecutors when assessing motions, oral statements, and evidence submitted by defense counsel, without regard to the merits of their respective arguments. Judges also reserved the right to remove defense lawyers in civil cases for “good cause.” In criminal proceedings, judges may remove defense lawyers because of a conflict of interest or if a defendant requests a change of counsel.
The law limits representation in criminal cases to members of the country’s government-dominated Collegium (bar association). The number of defense lawyers willing and able to accept sensitive cases remained small due to various measures taken by authorities, including by the Collegium’s presidium, its managing body. Such measures included disciplinary proceedings resulting in censure, and sometimes disbarment. For example, on November 20, the Collegium voted to expel lawyer Yalchin Imanov after he spoke publicly about the alleged torture suffered in prison by his client Muslim Unity Movement deputy chair Abbas Huseynov (see section 1.c.). There were reports of Collegium pressure on lawyers. There were reports of police physically intimidating lawyers, pressure from prosecutors and police, and occasional harassment of family members, including threats on social media. Most of the country’s human rights defense lawyers practiced in Baku, which made it difficult for individuals living outside of Baku to receive timely and quality legal service.
On November 7, the Milli Majlis amended the law on legal representation. Previously, the law permitted nonbar lawyers to represent clients in civil and administrative proceedings. Beginning in 2018, however, only members of the bar association will be able to represent citizens in any legal process. Representatives of the legal community and NGOs criticized the amended law, warning it would reduce citizens’ access to legal representation and allow the government-dominated bar association to prevent human rights lawyers from representing individuals in politically motivated cases.
The constitution prohibits the use of illegally obtained evidence. Despite some defendants’ claims that police and other authorities obtained testimony through torture or abuse, human rights monitors reported courts did not investigate allegations of abuse, and there was no independent forensic investigator to substantiate assertions of abuse. According to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, whereas it received “a large number of testimonies” of torture and mistreatment during its May 2016 visit to the country, none of the country’s officials or detainees with whom the group met indicated that a judge had questioned a detainee on his/her treatment in custody.
Investigations often focused on obtaining confessions rather than gathering physical evidence against suspects. Serious crimes brought before the courts most often ended in conviction, since judges generally sought only a minimal level of proof and collaborated closely with prosecutors.
With the exception of the Baku Court of Grave Crimes, human rights advocates also reported courts often failed to provide interpreters despite the constitutional right of an accused person to interpretation. Courts are entitled to contract interpreters during hearings, with expenses covered by the state budget.
There were no verbatim transcripts of judicial proceedings. Although some of the newer courts in Baku made audio recordings of proceedings, courts did not record most court testimonies, oral arguments, and judicial decisions. Instead, the court recording officer generally decided the content of notes, which tended to be sparse.
The country has a military court system with civilian judges. The Military Court retains original jurisdiction over any case related to war or military service.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
Political prisoners and detainees are entitled to the same rights as other prisoners, although restrictions on them varied. Authorities provided international humanitarian organizations access to political prisoners and detainees.
In addition to the presidential pardons on March 16 and September 11(see section 1.d.), authorities on September 11 released the Turan Information Agency editor in chief, Mehman Aliyev, from pretrial detention and changed the terms of confinement for Azadliqfinancial director and opposition Popular Front Party member Faig Amirli on September 15. According to an ad hoc nongovernmental working group on political prisoners, there were 156 political prisoners and detainees at year’s end. According to human rights organizations, dozens of government critics remained incarcerated for politically motivated reasons as of November 23. The following individuals were among those widely considered political prisoners or detainees (also see sections 1.c., 1.d., 1.f., 2.a., 3, and 4).
On January 16, the Baku Grave Crimes Court sentenced N!DA youth movement member Elgiz Gahraman to imprisonment for five years and six months on drug charges. Lawyers and civil society activists stated the real reason Gahraman was punished was for criticizing the president and his family in social media posts. The Baku Court of Appeals upheld the sentence on May 18, but on November 29, the Supreme Court reduced his sentence to three years’ imprisonment.
On January 25, the Baku Grave Crimes Court sentenced Muslim Unity Movement leader Taleh Bagirzada and his deputy, Abbas Huseynov, to 20 years in prison. Sixteen others associated with the case received prison terms ranging from 14 years and six months to 19 years for charges including terrorism, murder, calling for the overthrow of the government, and inciting religious hatred. Fuad Gahramanli, one of three deputy chairs of the secular opposition Popular Front Party, was sentenced in a related case to 10 years in prison. Human rights defenders asserted the government falsified and fabricated the charges to halt the spread of political opposition in the country.
On March 3, the Surakhany District Court sentenced blogger Mehman Huseynov to two years in prison for alleged defamation (see section 1.c.).
On June 16, the Baku Grave Crimes Court sentenced Fuad Ahmadli, a member of the Youth Committee of the Popular Front Party, to four years’ imprisonment for alleged abuse of office and purportedly illegally accessing private information at the mobile operator where he worked. Human rights defenders stated he was punished for participating in protest actions and for criticizing the government on social media.
On November 16, the ECHR ruled the chairman of the opposition Republican Alternative Movement (REAL Movement), Ilgar Mammadov, had been denied a fair trial. Mammadov had been incarcerated since 2013 despite a 2014 ruling by the ECHR that his detention was illegal.
Individuals considered by activists to be political detainees included one of three Popular Front Party deputy chairs, Gozel Bayramli, and journalists Afgan Mukhtarli and Aziz Orucov.
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
Citizens have the right to file lawsuits seeking damages for, or cessation of, human rights violations. All citizens have the right to appeal to the ECHR within six months of exhausting all domestic legal options, including an appeal to and ruling by the Supreme Court.
Citizens exercised the right to appeal local court rulings to the ECHR and brought claims of government violations of commitments under the European Convention on Human Rights. The government’s compliance with ECHR decisions was mixed; activists stated the government paid compensation but failed to release prisoners in response to ECHR decisions.
NGOs reported authorities did not respect the laws governing eminent domain and expropriation of property. Homeowners often reported receiving compensation well below market value for expropriated property and had little legal recourse. NGOs also reported many citizens did not trust the court system and were therefore reluctant to pursue compensation claims.