With the June 17-19 Formula One race in Baku drawing closer, Azerbaijani and foreign activists have tried to draw international attention to Azerbaijan’s human rights record. But do not think that the country does not have its own human rights intermediary. It does – 79-year-old Elmira Suleymanova. Controversy, however, persists about what she does to defend human rights.
Suleymanova, the former chief scientist at the Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Petro-Chemical Processes and the founder of Azerbaijan’s first women’s-welfare non-governmental organization, has held her post since 2002, after parliamentary confirmation of her nomination by the late President Heydar Aliyev, the father of Azerbaijan’s current leader, President Ilham Aliyev. In the two parliamentary votes she has since undergone, no more than eight deputies have opposed her nomination.
By definition, an ombudsperson acts as a potential check on government excesses by investigating individuals’ complaints against officials. And Suleymanova, known as the commissioner for human rights, has duly investigated local police, prosecutors and officials. In 2014, the latest year for which information is available, her office received or met with over 6,400 Azerbaijanis with petitions or complaints.
Among other issues, she has campaigned for rights for the disabled, natural-disaster victims, children, divorced women and those Azerbaijanis affected by the conflict over breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh.
But, now, despite that activity, criticism of her role is beginning to build among youth activists and the opposition.
Her role came under scrutiny after her office’s representatives visited jailed 20-year-old youth activists Bayram Mammadov and Giyas Ibrahimov on May 19 in the Baku Detention Center.
Mammadov and Ibrahimov were arrested on May 10 after they spray-painted “Happy Slave Days” on a Baku monument to the late President Heydar Aliyev. The message appeared on the eve of Heydar Aliyev’s May 10 birthday, an official holiday.
The two were charged with illegal possession of narcotics, a common charge against youth activists critical of the government.
Defense attorney Elchin Sadigov, who claims he saw bruises and injuries on both men’s bodies the day after their arrest, has released a statement from the pair about alleged police torture.
Upon request, doctors from the ombudsperson’s office examined the young men’s bodies, but reported that they “did not notice signs of torture…” The United Nations Working Group on Unlawful Detention and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent subsequently visited Mammadov and Ibrahimov, however, and confirmed that signs of torture exist on their hands and feet.
But no word from the ombudsperson. Officials from the Ministry of Internal Affairs rejected the claim of police torture.
“The ombudsperson has always tried to conceal the circumstances of torture,” charged Sadigov. “She is busy only with protecting the reputation of the torturers.”
On May 20, Bayram Mammadov went on a six-day hunger strike to protest the lack of an official investigation into the torture allegations.
Suleymanova’s office did not respond to a EurasiaNet.org request for comment about her findings.
Arguably, though, she has little personal incentive to champion Mammadov and Ibrahimov’s claims. Suleymanova herself formerly served on Heydar Aliyev’s prisoner-pardon committee, and owes her current post to the late leader. She is not known to have close ties to the ruling family, however.
Yet she walks a delicate line. Parliament, controlled by President Aliyev’s New Azerbaijan Party, decides on her office’s budget. Suleymanova, who serves a seven-year term, receives a government salary of 2,025 manats, or $1,353, per month, well under the annual estimated Gross Domestic Product per capita of $18,700.
In 2010, pro-government parliamentarians on the human rights committee criticized Suleymanova’s activities after she urged adoption of a law on defamation and proposed revoking the requirement to receive permission for public meetings.
Suleymanova also called for steps to be taken for the release of then jailed journalist Eynulla Fatullayev and video bloggers/youth activists Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade.
Since then, however, she appears to have avoided politically sensitive topics.
Although Suleymanova met several times with jailed rights activist Leyla Yunus and her husband, analyst Arif Yunus, she denied reports of their ill health or police misconduct toward them. Leyla Yunus, she wrote, had refused medical attention. Suleymanova did, however, secure the transfer of a former convict housed with Yunus about which the activist had complained.
International rights watchdogs largely deemed the couple’s imprisonment for tax evasion, fraud and embezzlement politically motivated.
The European Court of Human Rights ruled on June 2 that Azerbaijan must pay 30,000 euros ($34,075) to the couple for having failed to provide them with adequate medical care during the roughly 16 months they spent in prison. They were both released in late 2015 on grounds of ill health.
Suleymanova’s response to their health claims does not surprise 20-year-old Shahin Novruzlu.
Novruzlu was a 17-year-old member of the anti-government N!DA youth activist group when he was arrested in 2013 on suspicion of illegal possession of firearms and drugs. Relatives maintained that the weapons and drugs were planted by police during a search at their apartment. A third charge of inciting public disorder was later added.
In jail, Novruzlu met with Suleymanova, to whom he claimed that he had been beaten. The ombudsperson’s subsequent report, however, made no mention of his allegations against police.
“I’d been beaten during the interrogation to such an extent that I lost four front teeth and was forced to sign a confession” to the charges, Novruzlu recounted to EurasiaNet.org. “But the ombudsman’s report was saying I don’t have any complaints and I regret what I’ve done.”
On the October day in 2014 when Novruzlu was released from prison, he left Suleymanova’s extended, congratulatory hand hanging in the air.
“I don’t respect someone who doesn’t respect the human rights of others. That’s why I refused to shake hands with the ombudsperson,” he fumed.
Suleymanova’s term ends in 2017. By law, she cannot serve a third consecutive term.
That spells relief for defense attorney Sadigov. “I don’t see any need for the institution of the ombudsman to exist,” he said. “ I’ve never seen any benefit from this body.”
Suleymanova, however, maintains she is just doing her job. “The issues under our competence are solved,” she said in 2015 in reference to the Yunuses.
Durna Safarova is a freelance journalist who covers Azerbaijan.