Opposition figure in azerbaijan: on the verge of a coma

Politician Tofig Yagublu has been on hunger strike for over two weeks. He is protesting his sentence of four years in prison for vandalism.

Musavat Tofig Yagublu during an interview before his imprisonment Photo: Karimov/pacific press/imago

He is apparently determined to go to extremes: Azerbaijani opposition politician Tofig Yagublu threatened on Wednesday to stop drinking water if the guilty verdict against him is not overturned. On September 3, the 59-year-old was sentenced by a court in the capital Baku to four years and three months in prison for vandalism. Since then he has been on hunger strike.

His doctor, Adil Geybulla, described Yagublu’s health as critical to Azerbaijan’s independent news agency Turan. Already at this stage, the patient could lose consciousness and then fall into a coma.

The news portal eurasianet.org quotes daughter Nigar Hazim, who had spoken to her father on the phone this week. "I’m dying, my bones hurt so much, I don’t know how much life is left in me," he had said, still expressing his support for the Belarusian people fighting for democracy.

Yagublu, who belongs to Azerbaijan’s oldest opposition party Musavat, has already served several sentences. In February 2013, he was sentenced to five years imprisonment for participating in opposition demonstrations. A year later, a court found him guilty of inciting mass violence. The sentence was again five years’ imprisonment. From then on, the human rights organization Amnesty International listed him as a political prisoner.

Dissidents isolated in quarantine

In 2015, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued a ruling that Yagublu’s right to liberty and security of the European Convention on Human Rights had been violated. In 2016, he was pardoned by decree of authoritarian President Ilham Aliyev. In 2019, he served 30 days in detention for allegedly failing to follow police instructions during a protest.

The events leading up to the recent verdict occurred in Baku on March 22 of this year – just days after an announcement by President Aliyev that dissident*s were to be detained and, if necessary, isolated during the Corona-related quarantine. In the days that followed, a number of opposition figures, whom Aliyev had described as a "fifth column," were arrested.

According to the indictment, Yagublu allegedly attacked and injured the driver of the other car and his partner with a screwdriver after a car accident for which he was responsible. Yagublu, who believes the prosecution is politically motivated, presents a different version of events. According to this, he had been rammed in his parked car and then attacked himself.

However, as is usually the case in the South Caucasus republic, his statements were ignored in court. There, the judiciary is merely a vicarious agent of the executive. Currently, some 30 people are in prison for political reasons. On Wednesday of this week, Ali Akhmadov, the deputy head of government, even went so far as to say that radical parts of the opposition were abusing Yagublu’s hunger strike in order to get out of their own political coma.

Around 30 arrests

He was alluding to a rally in support of Yagublu in Baku last week, where demonstrators had demanded his release. Police violently broke up the protest, and around 30 people were arrested. Solidarity actions for Yagublu also took place in Toronto, Istanbul and Berlin. In front of the Berlin Reichstag, protesters demanded that sanctions be imposed on President Ilham Aliyev and other high-ranking representatives of the regime.

Some members of parliament who are considered pro-Aliyev parties also spoke out. "It should never have gotten to this point," said Sabir Rustamkhanli of the Civil Society Solidarity Party. "I believe that public opinion will be taken into account and Yagublu will be released."

Last week, a group of Azerbaijani human rights activists also addressed the presidential administration and other high-ranking bodies with a request to deal with the Yagublu case immediately. It is unclear whether and when the addressees will comply with the request. One thing is certain, however: there is not much time left.

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