Accessibility links

Court Frees 7 Demonstrators Arrested for Protesting Azerbaijan Elections - 2004-04-02

A court in Azerbaijan has freed seven opposition demonstrators who were jailed following last year's protests against parliamentary elections, which Western election observers denounced as spectacularly flawed. VOA's Lisa McAdams was in the Baku courtroom when the ruling came down and reports that two others were found guilty. It was standing room only in the small Baku courtroom Friday when the judge arrived to announce the verdict. Before giving his decision, a foreman read out charges and accusations against the men, a process that took well over an hour. The accused stood silently nearby in an open cage. One of the prisoners shielded his face from view with an opposition newspaper. Some shuffled restlessly or looked down toward the ground, while the most vocal prisoner, the imam of Baku's Cuma mosque, Ilgar Ibrahimogler, posed to the cameras in robes. Well over an hour into the proceedings, the judge began reading the verdicts. He declared seven men free to go, but two others were found guilty and given suspended sentences of up to five years, which they will serve out at home. The imam was one of those to be found guilty. He called the proceedings a "bizarre charade." He says Azerbaijan has all the potential to be a Western democratic state but chooses instead to support inquisitions like it was the Middle Ages. He called Friday's ruling absurd, and insisted he was not guilty of any crime against the state. He says he went to Baku's Freedom Square last October 16 in his capacity as an observer. I was working, he said, nothing more. He also vowed to struggle against the government of President Ilham Aliyev as long as it takes to clear his name. Speaking in his defense was Norway's ambassador to Azerbaijan, Stainar Gil. "With regard to Imam Ilgar Ibrahimogler, we have always considered, and still do consider, the accusations and the case against him as unfounded. We cannot see that any proof was presented in court that could justify his sentence," he said. At the same time, Mr. Gil welcomed the court's decision to allow the imam to serve the sentence outside prison. Applause broke out among the relatives and human rights campaigners looking on when those freed were allowed to leave the cell and walk to freedom. They were among more than a thousand people to spend two nights protesting the flawed elections in Freedom Square, before the government used force to break up the demonstration.