Azerbaijan Detains Ex-MP who Expressed Support for Environmental Protests

Published: 07 July 2023

Azerbaijan Protest 0723Azerbaijani police facing off protesters in Soyudlu. (Photo: Courtesy of Elmaddin Shamilzade)

By Erika Di Benedetto, Fatima Karimova and Aidan Iusubova

An Azerbaijani court sent a former lawmaker to pre-trial detention for four months on Wednesday after state media accused him of coordinating environmental protests in a village 450 kilometers away from Baku, the country’s capital where he lives.

Residents of the village of Soyudlu in Azerbaijan's western district of Gadabay protested on June 20 against the planned construction of an artificial lake intended to hold the waste from a nearby British-operated gold mine.

Police have taken control of the village and restricted all movement for over two weeks. According to reports, at least 11 residents have been detained, three of them on drug charges.

Nazim Baydamirli, a former lawmaker from the district who lives in Baku, gave an interview to VOA's Azerbaijan service and other independent media in which he criticized the government for failing to address the public health and environmental concerns of the villagers.

"The state itself should support the residents of Soyudlu and protect their interests," he said.

State media immediately accused him of supporting the protesters and coordinating the demonstrations. On the same day, he announced that he had filed a lawsuit against a state-owned TV station and others for making groundless accusations against him.

About 10 days later, he was detained. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs Press Service, the police opened an investigation into Baydamirli after someone filed a complaint against him.

"The citizen appealed to the police and claimed that N. Baydamirli threatened him and demanded 50,000 manats (nearly $30,000) from him," the statement said.

If proven guilty, Baydamirli could face up to 10 years in prison.

In an interview with local media, Baydamirli's lawyer stated that his client denies the accusations and claims that he was arrested in connection with the environmental protests.

"We will appeal against this decision," said the lawyer, Agil Layij.

Baydamirli is not the only one who has been detained and harassed for supporting the protests.

Several journalists and activists have been imprisoned for expressing their support on social media.

Activists Elmir Abbasov and Giyas Ibrahimov criticized the police's brutal treatment of protesters and were arrested on June 21 and 22.

The local court found Ibrahimov guilty of resisting the police and sharing prohibited information on the internet, sentencing him to 32 days of detention without trial. Abbasov was accused of resisting the police and hooliganism and sentenced to 20 days.

On June 22, journalists Nargiz Absalamova, Nigar Mubariz, and Elsever Muradzade were detained and later released but were forced to leave the village and prohibited from returning.

According to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a total of six journalists have been detained or subjected to pressure by authorities in relation to their coverage of the protests in Soyudlu.

Two days after the protests, Elmaddin Shamilzade was summoned by officers from the State Service for Mobilization and Conscription of Azerbaijan. They demanded evidence of Elmaddin's exemption from military service, which he is awaiting as he requested the document from his university.

The following day, he was detained by the police. He was beaten and forced to delete the video he had posted. He was threatened with jail if he spoke publicly about the violence used against him.

Ulvi Hasanli of Abzas Media was summoned by the police and told to delete photos he had posted on Facebook showing the arrests of other journalists in Soyudlu. Hasanli refused to comply and was released after four hours.

The International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR), an independent Brussels-based NGO, issued a statement calling on Azerbaijan "to promptly investigate all allegations of violations related to the recent environmental protest in the village."