An Azerbaijani journalist imprisoned on what rights groups believe are trumped-up charges has had his appeal for parole rejected.
The Supreme Court of Azerbaijan on Wednesday rejected the appeal of human rights defender and journalist Elchin Mammad to be freed after serving one-third of his sentence.
Mammad, editor of the news website Yukselish Namine and head of the nongovernmental organization Legal Education of Sumgayit Youth, was arrested in the city of Sumgayit in 2020.
Police at the time said they’d found stolen jewelry in his office. A court in October 2020 convicted Mammad of theft and illegal possession of weapons, and it sentenced him to four years in prison.
Mammad denies the allegations, and journalists and human rights defenders say they believe his imprisonment is arbitrary.
Accusations ‘do not seem credible’
Farid Gahramanov, who works for the independent Turan news agency, told VOA he believed the case against Mammad was political.
“As a journalist and social activist, Elchin Mammad was engaged in protecting human rights and freedom of expression. We can say that he was arrested precisely for this reason, because the accusations made against him do not seem credible and have not been proven in court,” he told VOA.
Mammad’s website publishes content on human rights, freedom of speech and access to information. And his nongovernmental organization provides legal assistance to low-income families.
Amnesty International reported at the time that the journalist’s arrest came a few days after he published a report on human rights abuses in Azerbaijan.
According to Amnesty, the journalist said he believed police had planted the stolen goods in his office when it was searched in his absence.
Mushfiq Alasgarli, deputy chair of Azerbaijan’s Press Council, denied that Mammad’s arrest was related to journalistic activities.
The self-regulatory Press Council says on its website that it oversees media compliance with legal and professional requirements and works to strengthen relations between the state, public and press.
“Even though whenever some people are jailed, it is assumed that it’s in connection with their occupation, that is not the case with Elchin Mammad. The charges against him are directly related to illegal possession of weapons and theft,” Alasgarli told VOA.
Problem for the nation
Alasgarli said, however, that he believed detaining such people “creates a problem not only for Elchin Mammad, but also for Azerbaijan as a whole. International organizations report these cases. These facts are used against Azerbaijan.”
The deputy chair said that in some cases it could be more effective to free such prisoners.
The Azerbaijan Supreme Court did not respond to multiple calls from VOA requesting comment.
Under Azerbaijan’s penal code, parole can be offered to people who have served a third of their sentences, provided they complied with prison regulations, Fuad Ahmadli, coordinator of the Center for the Protection of Political Prisoners and Victims of Torture, told VOA.
In October 2021, a district court denied Mammad’s request to release for parole, arguing that although the journalist had not violated any prison rules, he had not pleaded guilty to the charges brought against him.
The Baku Court of Appeals upheld that decision in December 2021.
An affidavit presented to the court from the penal colony where Mammad is held stated that he “does not show sincerity in following relevant norms of behavior, ethical rules, communication with staff and other prisoners.”
Mammad’s lawyer, Fariz Namazli, told VOA the journalist had followed prison rules and that no disciplinary action was taken against him.
“Moreover, his mother is 68 years old and seriously ill. Two young children of the human rights defender have been left without their father’s care,” Namazli said.
“The detention of Elchin Mammad and the denials by the district, appeal and supreme courts are absurd,” rights activist Ahmadli said.
He told VOA that it is illegal for the court to keep someone in prison for “absurd considerations such as his negative attitude towards labor, being introverted and not keeping his bed neat.”
Mammad himself told the court that the affidavit from the penal colony “does not reflect the reality.”
The journalist said he believes it was prepared to fulfill the will of the people who ordered his arrest and that they want to keep him in prison for as long as possible.
Turan journalist Gahramanov said cases like Mammad’s hurt the already restrictive media environment in the country. Azerbaijan has a poor press freedom record, ranking 154th out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index, where 1 has the best conditions.
“Such severe punishment of journalists has a negative impact on freedom of expression in the country and serves to create self-censorship among journalists,” Gahramanov said.
Amnesty International and other international organizations have condemned Mammad’s conviction. Local human rights defenders recognize him as a political prisoner.
This story originated in VOA’s Azerbaijani Service.