Rights activists in Azerbaijan are accusing the government of manufacturing false charges to arrest critics who have been returned to the country after failing to gain asylum in Germany.
Samir Ashurov was detained on April 19 on charges of assault with a knife, just weeks after he was deported from Germany back to his native country.
Ashurov had fled to Germany in 2018 when he was a member of the opposition REAL Movement. After leaving Azerbaijan, Ashurov continued criticizing the Azerbaijani government.
He was readmitted to Azerbaijan on March 29, after the German government refused to grant him asylum.
His lawyer, Elchin Sadiqov, told VOA that Ashurov had left his house earlier this week planning to renew his passport so that he could again leave the country. Instead, he said, Ashurov was attacked in the street and had a knife planted on him.
"He said that a man approached him near a metro station in Baku, shouting and knocking him to the ground. Samir ran away and shouted, ‘Police,’ and that’s when the police officers immediately detained him," Sadiqov said.
"They then put a knife in the right pocket of his jacket," Sadiqov said. "He took the knife out and threw it away. Then they put it back in his left pocket. He was then taken to the 24th Police Station of the Nizami District Police Office.”
Ashurov’s lawyer said he was tortured in custody and now was on a hunger strike, protesting his arrest.
“He said that he was beaten at the police station,” said Sadiqov. “When I met him, he had bruises on his chest and groin. He said he had been on a hunger strike since April 19 to protest his arrest.”
Elshad Hajiyev, spokesperson for the Ministry of Internal Affairs, called these allegations completely unfounded.
“Samir Ashurov is charged with a specific crime, and what his lawyer says is a defense. And that's understandable,” he said.
A targeted campaign
Government critics say authorities are using criminal charges to jail political opponents, in particular those who have spoken out while seeking asylum abroad. They say it’s part of a coordinated campaign by President Ilham Aliyev.
“I met Samir Ashurov last week after his deportation from Germany. He told me that he had been summoned to the prosecutor's office several times, was being monitored and that preparations were being made for his arrest,” Tofiq Yaqublu, deputy chairman of the opposition Musavat Party and a senior politician of the National Council of Democratic Forces, wrote on Facebook.
Ashurov, who spoke with VOA earlier this month following his return from Germany, said he was also questioned at the airport about why he had left the country.
“I said that I was facing political persecution in Azerbaijan," he said. "I told them that I had been arrested twice under false pretenses. I told them that I would be one of the victims of the government. Just like four political activists before me — Malik Rzayev, Mutalim Orujov, Punhan Karimli and Jafar Mirzayev were arrested.”
He also predicted that he would be detained in the future. “This regime will arrest me again on false charges,” Ashurov told VOA.
In January, Mirzayev, a member of the Germany-based DAS (Elect a Democratic Azerbaijan) group, was detained on charges of drug trafficking and sentenced to four months of pretrial detention. Mirzayev faces between five and 12 years in prison.
Karimli, a member of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (PFPA); Rzayev and Orujov have also been charged with drug trafficking.
Some see coordinated campaign
Some rights activists argue that the arrests are part of a coordinated effort aimed at migrants who sought asylum in other countries.
“Political activists deported from Germany were being arrested on drug charges. Now they have switched from drugs to knives,” Afgan Mukhtarli, an investigative journalist, human rights defender and former political prisoner currently living in Germany, said in a Facebook post. “We knew Samir would be arrested. Ilham Aliyev takes revenge on migrants. In his speeches, he repeatedly targeted migrants, calling them agents.”
Zafar Ahmadov, co-founder of a human rights NGO known as “Defense Line,” told VOA that the fate of readmitted political activists continues to be a concern.
"The arrest of all five readmitted political activists is not a coincidence," said Ahmadov, who is also a member of the Democracy for Azerbaijan (AND) movement. "As a rule, we raise the issue of readmitted human rights activists before the EU Delegation and the embassies of EU member states."
The German Embassy in Azerbaijan on Thursday told VOA it was monitoring Ashurov's case.
"We are monitoring such incidents. We hold regular talks with the Azerbaijani government on human rights issues," the embassy officials said.
Pact on repatriation
The European Union and Azerbaijan in 2014 signed an agreement on the repatriation of persons residing without authorization. Since the signing of the agreement, more than 2,000 people have been returned to Azerbaijan, including 420 in 2021.
International human rights organizations, including Freedom House and Human Rights Watch, report that the government of Azerbaijan frequently arrests individuals exercising their fundamental rights on trumped-up charges.
The Azerbaijani government, on the other hand, says people are not persecuted for their political beliefs.
This story originated in VOA’s Azerbaijani Service.