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Azerbaijan

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person

a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings

There were reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. Credible reports emerged during the year regarding unlawful killings during the fall 2020 intensive fighting between Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenian forces (see section 1.g. and the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Armenia).

The Office of the Prosecutor General is empowered to investigate whether killings committed by the security forces were justifiable and to pursue prosecutions.

Reports of arbitrary or unlawful killings in police custody continued. For example, on August 2, 31-year-old Tural Ismayilov died in the Siyazan police department on the day of his arrest. According to official information disseminated by law enforcement agencies, his “health suddenly deteriorated in the police station” and he was taken to a hospital, where he died. Ismayilov’s family, however, alleged police tortured him to death.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

While the constitution and criminal code prohibit such practices and provide for penalties for conviction of up to 10 years’ imprisonment, credible allegations of torture and other abuses continued. Most mistreatment took place while detainees were in police custody, where authorities reportedly used abusive methods to coerce confessions. Authorities reportedly denied detainees timely access to family, independent lawyers, or independent medical care. There were credible reports that Azerbaijani forces abused soldiers and civilians held in custody in connection with the conflict in late 2020 (see section 1.g. and the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Armenia).

During the year the government took no action in response to the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) reports on six visits the CPT conducted to the country between 2004 and 2017. In the reports, the CPT stated that torture and other forms of physical mistreatment by police and other law enforcement agencies, corruption in the entire law enforcement system, and impunity remained systemic and endemic. The CPT visited the country in December 2020 and discussed its findings from that visit at the CPT plenary meeting on June 28 to July 2. At year’s end the CPT’s report from the December 2020 visit had not yet been published.

There were several credible reports of torture during the year. For example, the lawyer of Agil Humbatov, a member of the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party widely considered a political prisoner (see section 1.e.), stated that Humbatov’s initial testimony was coerced under torture after his arrest on August 11. In addition, Humbatov informed his lawyer that he had been threatened with rape at the Khazar district police department.

Reports continued of torture at the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ Main Department for Combating Organized Crime. Persons reportedly tortured included a civil society activist (see section 4), Muslim Unity Movement member Razi Humbatov, and opposition activist Tofig Yagublu. Pictures of Yagublu were widely available on the internet with his eyes swollen shut, apparently from beatings while he was in police detention in December following a small unsanctioned rally in Baku (see section 2.b., Freedom of Peaceful Assembly, and section 3).

On November 1, Khanlar Veliyev, the deputy military prosecutor general, acknowledged that more than 100 persons connected with the 2017 Terter case had been subjected to different forms of physical abuse, including torture, that resulted in the deaths of eight suspects, four of whom were posthumously acquitted. The government prosecuted 17 officials for abuse: nine were sentenced to three and one-half years in prison, six were sentenced to six months, and one received a 10-year prison sentence. Investigators who falsified evidence also were sentenced to prison. In the Terter case, authorities detained a group of approximately 100 servicemen and civilians in 2017, allegedly for spying for Armenia. As of year’s end, 27 remained in prison and were considered political prisoners, some serving sentences of up to 20 years.

On July 21, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued a decision that found that from 2009 to 2011, authorities tortured and unlawfully deprived Armenian Artur Badalyan of his liberty. The court ordered the state to pay Badalyan 30,000 euros ($34,500) in damages.

There were numerous credible reports of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment in custody. For example, human rights defenders reported that on August 12, imprisoned Muslim Unity Movement deputy Abbas Huseynov was beaten by several prison guards in Prison No. 8.

Authorities reportedly maintained an implicit ban on independent forensic examinations of detainees who claimed abuse. Authorities reportedly also delayed detainees’ access to an attorney. Opposition figures and other activists stated that these practices made it easier for officers to mistreat detainees with impunity. In one example, on April 5, opposition Musavat party member Nizamali Suleymanov and his nephew, Akif Suleymanov, were sentenced to 20 days of administrative arrest for allegedly using drugs. After serving their sentences, they were forced to undergo medical treatment at a drug treatment center for six months. They were released on October 27.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

According to prison monitoring conducted by a reputable organization prior to the onset of COVID-19, prison conditions were sometimes harsh and potentially life threatening due to overcrowding; inadequate nutrition; deficient heating, ventilation, and sanitation; and poor medical care. Detainees also complained of inhuman conditions in the crowded basement detention facilities of local courts where they were held while awaiting their hearings.

Physical Conditions: Authorities held men and women together in pretrial detention facilities in separate blocks and held women in separate prison facilities after sentencing. Local nongovernmental (NGO) observers reported female prisoners typically lived in better conditions, were monitored more frequently, and had greater access to training and other activities. The same NGOs noted, however, that women’s prisons suffered from many of the same problems as prisons for men. While the government continued to construct new prison facilities, some Soviet-era facilities were still in operation and failed to meet international standards. Gobustan Prison, Prison No. 3, Prison No. 14, and the penitentiary tuberculosis treatment center reportedly had the worst conditions.

Human rights advocates reported guards sometimes punished prisoners with beatings or by placing them in solitary confinement. Local and international monitors reported markedly poorer conditions at the maximum-security Gobustan Prison.

Prisoners claimed they endured lengthy confinement periods without any opportunity for physical exercise. They also reported instances of cramped, overcrowded conditions; inadequate ventilation; poor sanitary facilities; inedible food; and insufficient access to medical care. One prison monitor noted food delivery and visits resumed after a pause due to the pandemic; the monitor reported overall progress had been made with regards to treatment of inmates and their complaints.

Administration: While most prisoners reported they could submit complaints to judicial authorities and the Ombudsperson’s Office without censorship, prison authorities regularly read prisoners’ correspondence, monitored meetings between lawyers and clients, and restricted some lawyers from taking documents into and out of detention facilities. The Ombudsperson’s Office reported that it conducted systematic visits and investigations into complaints, but activists claimed the office regularly dismissed prisoner complaints in politically sensitive cases.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted some prison visits by international and local organizations, including the ICRC and the CPT.

Authorities generally permitted the ICRC access to detainees held in connection with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The ICRC conducted regular visits throughout the year to promote protection of prisoners, including respect for international humanitarian law, and regularly facilitated the exchange of messages between prisoners and their families to help them re-establish and maintain contact.

A human rights community prison-monitoring group, known as the Public Committee, was allowed access to prisons without prior notification to the Penitentiary Service.

Improvements: The Ministry of Justice reported that authorities permitted the use of GPS-enabled electronic monitoring bracelets for more than 2,500 citizens during the year, allowing them to avoid incarceration.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

Although the law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of persons to challenge the lawfulness of their arrest or detention in court, the government generally did not observe these requirements.

There were reports that the government continued to hold detainees captured after the fall 2020 intensive fighting in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and following the November 2020 cease-fire. There were reports that some detainees from the period prior to the November 2020 cease-fire had been summarily executed (see section 1.g.). Of the 41 Armenians in Azerbaijani detention at year’s end, two Armenians detained during the 2020 fighting were charged with committing crimes during the fighting in the 1990s.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law provides that persons detained, arrested, or accused of a crime be accorded due process, including being advised immediately of their rights and the reason for their arrest, and being given immediate access to counsel. In all cases deemed to be politically motivated, due process was not respected, and accused individuals were frequently detained under a variety of spurious criminal charges.

According to the law, detainees must appear before a judge within 48 hours of arrest. The judge may issue a warrant either placing the detainee in pretrial detention or under house arrest or release the detainee. Authorities at times detained individuals for longer than 48 hours without warrants. The initial 48-hour arrest period may be extended to 96 hours under extenuating circumstances. During pretrial detention or house arrest, the Prosecutor General’s Office must complete its investigation. Pretrial detention is limited to three months but may be extended by a judge up to 18 months, depending on the alleged crime and the needs of the investigation. There were reports of detainees not being informed promptly of the charges against them during the year.

A formal bail system existed, but judges did not utilize it during the year.

The law provides for access to an attorney from the time of detention, but there were reports that authorities frequently denied detainees prompt access to a defense attorney of their choice in both politically motivated and routine cases.

Access to counsel was poor, particularly outside of Baku. Although entitled to legal counsel by law, indigent detainees often did not have such access. The Collegium of Advocates (bar association), however, undertook some initiatives to expand legal representation outside the capital. For example, on November 27, the collegium opened a Regional Advocate Bureau in Sheki and organized pro bono legal services in various regions throughout the year.

The law provides detained individuals the right to contact relatives and have a confidential meeting with their lawyers immediately following detention. Prisoners’ family members reported that authorities occasionally restricted visits, especially to persons in pretrial detention, and withheld information regarding detainees. Days sometimes passed before families could obtain information regarding detained relatives.

Arbitrary Arrest: Authorities often made arrests based on spurious charges, such as resisting police, illegal possession of drugs or weapons, tax evasion, illegal entrepreneurship, abuse of authority, or inciting public disorder. Local organizations and international NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch criticized the government for arresting individuals exercising their fundamental rights and noted that authorities frequently fabricated charges against those individuals. Police periodically detained opposition and other activists on administrative charges, such as insubordination to police, and subsequently took them to local courts where judges sentenced them to periods of administrative detention ranging from 10 to 30 days. Those charged with criminal offenses were sentenced to lengthier periods of incarceration (see section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees). Human rights defenders asserted these arrests were one method authorities used to intimidate activists and dissuade others from engaging in activism. For example, on December 2, the government detained four activists from the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party and one independent activist following their participation in a peaceful assembly to demand release of Popular Front political prisoner Saleh Rustamli. The activists were charged with violation of the infection control, health, sanitation and quarantine regime of the administrative offenses code and sentenced to detention ranging from 15 to 30 days.

Pretrial Detention: Authorities held persons in pretrial detention for up to 18 months, the maximum allowed by law. The Prosecutor General’s Office routinely extended the initial three-month pretrial detention period permitted by law in successive increments of several months until authorities completed an investigation.

Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: The law provides that persons arrested or detained, regardless of whether on criminal or other grounds, are entitled to challenge in court the legal basis, length, or arbitrary nature of their detention and obtain prompt release and compensation if found to have been unlawfully detained. The judiciary, however, did not rule independently in such cases, and while sentences were occasionally reduced, the outcomes often appeared predetermined.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively and officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. While the government made some progress in combating low-level corruption in the provision of government services, there were continued reports of corruption by government officials, including those at the highest levels.

Transparency International and other observers described corruption as widespread. There were reports of corruption in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. For example, in six reports on visits made to the country between 2004 and 2017, the CPT noted that corruption in the country’s entire law enforcement system remained “systemic and endemic.” In a report on its most recent visit to the country in 2017, for example, the CPT cited the practice of law enforcement officials demanding payments in exchange for dropping or reducing charges or for releasing individuals from unrecorded custody. These problems persisted throughout the year. Media reported that on April 26, the head of the Shamkir Executive Committee Alimpasha Mammadov was detained on corruption-related charges.

Similar to previous years, authorities continued to punish individuals for exposing government corruption. For example, during the year police detained two civil society activists who were then turned over to the Main Department to Combat Organized Crime of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The two activists were preparing a media story about government corruption. Main Department to Combat Organized Crime officials reportedly tortured one of these individuals.

Corruption: The Anticorruption Department of the Prosecutor General’s Office stated that it investigated 600 criminal cases against 405 officials and sent 274 criminal cases to the courts during the year. While no senior officials were prosecuted, several high-ranking officials were arrested and charged. Several such cases remained under investigation at year’s end, including charges of corruption against the minister of culture and other high-ranking ministry officials, multiple ambassadors, several department heads at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and several heads and deputy heads of regional executive committees (governors). Although those accused were charged with corruption, the arrests were not accompanied by systemic reforms, such as requiring all officials to comply with the asset declaration law or ending punitive measures against persons who exposed corruption. Many observers considered the arrests to have political or economic motives that were unrelated to combating corruption.

On June 29, the OCCRP published an article regarding Izzatkhanim Javadova and Suleyman Javadov, who had family ties to the ruling elite and who allegedly received $19.6 million from questionable sources. According to the United Kingdom’s (UK) National Crime Agency, the family used a network of 20 companies based mostly in offshore locations to transfer the funds into their UK accounts. UK investigators identified six of the companies as being part of the “Azerbaijani Laundromat,” which allowed the country’s ruling elite to embezzle funds, avoid taxes, launder money, pay bribes to European parliamentarians, purchase properties, and fund luxurious lifestyles. On July 7, the OCCRP published information that the Javadovs had agreed to hand over $5.5 million to UK authorities and settle an inquiry into the origin of their financial wealth.

On October 7, the OCCRP published an investigation revealing the wife, daughter, and son-in-law of former speaker of the Milli Majlis (parliament) Oktay Asadov (2005-20) acquired luxurious properties in London, Dubai, and Moscow. In total, the Asadovs reportedly acquired assets valued at almost $10 million.

There were credible reports that paying bribes could obtain a waiver of the military service obligation, which is universal for men between ages 18 and 35. Citizens also reported military personnel could buy assignments to easier military duties for a smaller bribe.

The government continued efforts to reduce low-level corruption and improve government services by expanding the capabilities and number of service centers of the State Agency for Public Service and Social Innovations, which functioned as one-stop locations for government services, such as obtaining birth certificates and marriage licenses, from nine ministries.

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