Zhala and her father, Gubad Ibadoghlu. Credits: Zhala's Twitter Account

Exclusive Interview: “I’m Zhala and my dad is a political prisoner in Azerbaijan”

Since the 23rd of July 2023, Gubad Ibadoghlu, a renowned Azerbaijani political economist, scholar, and human rights defender, has been arbitrarily detained and subject to inhumane treatment in Azerbaijan. Different human rights protection organizations advocated for his release and newspapers such as The Washington Post covered his case. In September, on his 52nd day of detention, Gubad celebrated his 52nd birthday. Thus, a birthday campaign was conducted in 52 counties to raise awareness of his imprisonment.

 Zhala Bayramova, his daughter, agreed to share his story and her hopes for the future with The Perspective Webzine.

“He and my mom were in the same car and they crashed it, assaulted and abused them.”

Can you introduce yourself and present your father’s situation?

I’m Zhala, I am a human rights activist from Azerbaijan. I study international human rights law at Lund University. 

The situation in Azerbaijan is quite horrifying. We are in a civil crackdown and the start of it was my father’s arrest. 

He was arrested on the 23rd of July and it was quite brutal. He and my mom were in the same car and they [a group of 20 people in civilian clothes] crashed it, assaulted and abused them [and took them into police custody]. My mom’s whole body was in bruises. She had blood on her head because they punched her. She was released but not my father. 

They detained my father as a witness so that he wouldn’t have the right to have a lawyer. When both of my parents were detained, they brought them to the Organized Crime Department, which is known for torture. […]

My father was charged with counterfeiting money. They planted 20,000 dollars in the office he used 8 years ago when he was working for his organization. […]

Was your father arrested because he was a threat to the Azerbaijani government?

My father is a scholar, he conducted a lot of investigations. He investigated offshore assets of companies abroad. He was working on the United Nations Convention against Corruption.

He worked in a foundation in the United Kingdom that gives Azerbaijani students scholarships with confiscated money from Azerbaijan elites […]. The foundation was also meant to research more elite assets and offshore companies. […]

Gubad Ibadoghlu (Image Credit: Voice of America | Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain)

My father was doing research about the European Union (EU) oil and gas deal [with Azerbaijan].

He was also doing a lot of investigations and reports on corruption. For example, in 2021, Azerbaijan was trying to get loans from the World Bank. My dad reported that the country violated a lot of human rights and was corrupt. The president of Azerbaijan said on public television that “cockroaching from abroad should trap your tongue into your stomach”. So basically, “don’t give a report about us”.

“the government started transnational aggression against our family”

My father was also doing research on Nagorno-Karabakh, which is controlled by Azerbaijan since 2020. Elites destroy family businesses there. […]

I think these are the main reasons for his arrests.

Dr. Gubad Ibadoghlu being detained after the illegal search of the office (Image Credit: Bayramov.zh | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED)

What is the timeline of events from your father’s arrest to the present?

After his arrest, he was deprived of medication, drinkable water and food. It deteriorated his health rapidly because he was taking eight medications a day which were vital to balance his hypertension and heart and blood problems. […]

We got the European Court of Human Rights decision but we were not allowed to get a medical document so the court asked the government to provide the correct document, which it didn’t do. They also didn’t give any new prescriptions for my father’s health. They falsified a lot of documents that they sent to the European court. 

What we are advocating is getting my father to any kind of hospital. 

In October, the European Parliament adopted an urgent resolution about my father’s health because the government started transnational aggression against our family. 

They were calling members of my family to question them and put travel bans on all of our relatives including the ones that don’t have our last name. They [unknown people suspected to be Azerbaijani Secret Security Service] also ransacked my little brother’s room in shared accommodation with other students in New Jersey to intimidate our family. They also shared some of my personal photos. And they also have been following us.

“I can obviously not go back to Azerbaijan.”

The resolution didn’t really change the situation but the travel bans were lifted for our relatives, that way my mom was able to flee to Sweden. […]

Last week, they extended the detention time. It was three months and 26 days. Now it is extended to 7 months. […]

Can you talk about the defamation campaign and how it has impacted your life?

The defamation campaign [by the government] started before his arrest. 

They published a lot of articles about him, about us. They are saying that he is part of an Islamic movement in Turkey, that he is an Iranian, EU and US spy.

They published pictures of him with me with LGBTQ flags because Azerbaidjan is the most homophobic country. 

They said that he worked with the Armenian diaspora. They made YouTube videos about my father and me saying that I was working with the Armenian lobby as a peace activist. […]

Have you personally received threats from the government?

They say that all of what we are doing will not be forgotten, that they will punish us and take revenge on our family and friends. […] 

I can obviously not go back to Azerbaijan or even countries like Turkey or Georgia because I could get kidnapped by the Azerbaijani government.

Has your father’s situation received support from the international community?

We received a lot of international support because it is the highest profile case in Azerbaijan and considering that he has been a professor in a lot of universities […]. 

Amnesty International started urgent action for him. Human Rights Watch, International Partnership for Human Rights and almost all human rights international organizations support the case. […]

The Guardian, Washington Post and Financial Times also published articles about the case. […]

Do you think a favourable court decision will make the government release him?

We have to keep in mind that Azerbaijan is one of the most problematic countries in the Council of Europe. […] 

The government has caviar diplomacy. They corrupt journalists in Sweden. […] The first time there was a human rights resolution in Azerbaijan from the Council of Europe, it didn’t pass because it turned out that the government had corrupted more than half of the council, it was a big scandal. There are actually two corruption cases in Sweden related to Azerbaijan. One is regarding Telia—my dad was investigating them.

Dr. Gubad Ibadoghlu giving a lecture (Image Credit: Bayramov.zh | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED)

Azerbaijan has the most violations of Article 18 of the European Convention on Human Rights.[…] It should not have voting rights or be part of the council. […] 

The government doesn’t apply the court’s decision, there are no consequences. They may pay some compensation but implement only 3% of the decision according to the Council of Europe.

As a lawyer, I have cases before the court. I know that it can take a long time before having a decision and the victims can die before [a decision is reached]. […]

How has the “Birthday Campaign” helped your father’s case?

It had a good impact. When arrested, my father was in a small jail with 6 people, now there are 3. These campaigns help improve detention conditions. After the campaign, he was able to call us 3 minutes a day. It is still something, we can at least hear his voice. 

The campaign spread all over from East Timor to the US.

Gubad Publish What You Pay Campaign (Image Credit: Bayramov.zh | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED)

It’s important to voice the case because the government wants us silenced. If we talk about it, make it a problem, they will eventually release people because my father’s case is not an isolated one. […] Others have only been released thanks to a lot of international pressure. […]. Azerbaijan doesn’t have a lot of resources so the country relies on imports.

Recognizing the human rights violations in Azerbaijan will just make it a better place for its citizens. It’s not Russia or Iran, the international pressure can work there.

“It stopped our lives. We are trying to rescue my father.”

What can Lund University students do to help your father’s case?

Firstly, you have to know that the Azerbaijani government commits a lot of human rights violations. Sweden does a lot of trade with Azerbaijan and as Swedish citizens, you can advocate to put human rights as the most important condition to trade.

Every post on social media about the case counts. You can even talk to your colleagues, journalists, friends, and write about it in your essays so that Azerbaijanis are not alone. […]

The most important thing is awareness. […]

How has your father’s imprisonment influenced your own engagement as a human rights lawyer and peace activist?

It horribly affected us. I was supposed to graduate but I couldn’t. I am working every day on the case. It just changed my life. […]

They psychologically pressure my father. My mom has nightmares every night. It stopped our lives. We are trying to rescue my father.

In this case, we go through every single hole in Azerbaijan’s legal system. Even if they get rejected, we think it’s important to challenge the system.

By Esther Alves

February 9, 2024

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