Political prisoner Ilgar Mammadov celebrates his 46th birthday in jail. | Den norske Helsingforskomité

      Political prisoner Ilgar Mammadov celebrates his 46th birthday in jail.

      Political prisoner Ilgar Mammadov celebrates his 46th birthday in jail.

      Today, the opposition leader Ilgar Mammadov spends his 46th birthday in one of the vile prisons in Azerbaijan, prisons which have a history of housing dissidents. In May 2014, the European Court of Human Rights concluded, in a strongly worded judgment, that the actual purpose of Mammadov’s detention “was to silence or punish Mammadov for criticizing the government.” Citing that ruling, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe has called repeatedly for Mammadov’s release. Yet the government, which controls the courts, the parliament and the media, remains deaf to the calls.

      Mammadov, the charismatic pro-reform and Western-educated politician is head of the pro-democracy ReAl (Republican Alternative) opposition movement. He was jailed on cooked up charges of inciting violence in February 2013. The charges are widely seen as a political revenge against one of the repressive regime’s main antagonist, sent him to 7 years in jail.

      As a critic of the rampant corruption in the authoritarian government, Mammadov had become a brave man for the many Azerbaijanis with his solid political analyses and straightforward accusations against the ruling Aliyev family and the regime, what he calls, “managed by thugs”. He has a long history of activism in the country’s pro-democracy movements, having been at the forefront of civil society initiatives and demonstrations. Though his activism had always brought him to the brink of imprisonment, Mammadov never showed any willingness to make compromises or to leave Azerbaijan, the way several other prominent critics of the Aliyev regime have done in past years. Mammadov had also made no secret of his presidential ambitions, which ultimately cost him his freedom: The government sent him to jail shortly after he was nominated to be the opposition's presidential hopeful ahead of 2013 presidential polls. He is one of the scores of political prisoners who are locked away because of their words and ideas.

      Mammadov now languishes in jail under an oppressive political climate. He can only receive visits from his own family members and his lawyers. Access is denied to his close friends and followers. His legal team also has often had repeated problems with correspondence and meeting him, and sometimes the letters he sent from jail are extensively scrutinized and in several instances, have been retained altogether. Though the authorities locked up Mammadov’s body, but they could not lock up his mind nor managed to silence this opponent of the regime. He has been beaten at least twice by prison officials as an apparent retaliation against his outspokenness from the prison.

      The irony is that Mammadov is not a criminal but rather a firm and respected politician, whose ‘offence’ was urging the corrupted regime to accountability and establish the rule of law and respect human rights, and do so peacefully and without violence. In May 2014, the European Court of Human Rights concluded, in a strongly worded judgment, that the actual purpose of Mammadov’s detention “was to silence or punish Mammadov for criticizing the government.” Citing that ruling, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe has called repeatedly for Mammadov’s release. Yet the government, which totally controls courts, parliament and media, is in deaf hollow while Mammadov suffers in jail.

      What the ruling regime wants is Mammadov to serve his long prison sentence, or ask for desperate clemency from the President Aliyev and stay ever away from the opposition politics. Why Mammadov cannot be forgiven? Why is there so much hatred and vengeance against him? Mammadov’s staunch opposition to the government had made him a public enemy number one, and President Aliyev’s one of the greatest domestic nemesis as well as the respected voice of the political opposition camp. He enjoys large international network with his charismatic, fearless and impressive energy, while his movement represents most that the ruling regime does not: members from the emerging middle-class representatives, well-educated followers, skilled technocrats, and initiatives to establish a western-style reformist political party are what could make the Mammadov’s movement to overcome the backwards and unambitious image of the traditional opposition.

      It is hard to see Azerbaijan as a country with a great potential now as it is speedily spiraling into the deep abyss of dictatorship with its broken political system. Releasing Mammadov and many imprisoned dissidents and bringing the system back to the right track require a real engagement from the international community, particularly the European Union and the Council of Europe. The critical reactions from the major human rights groups contrast are in contrast to the toothless responses from those institutions, which have abstained from any meaningful action into the current crisis of human rights and ongoing repression. Being silent is to be complicit in the repression and further downward spiral in Azerbaijan, where the regime has almost systematically dismantled all the fundamental freedoms, including free speech, freedoms of association and assembly. For Azerbaijan to move forward, the international community should strongly lobby for Mammadov's and other wrongfully imprisoned dissidents' immediate release, and should seriously raise the ongoing abuses directly with the Azerbaijani government, condemn repression and ensure solidarity on human rights in the country.

      Let us hope Mammadov does not celebrate his next 47th birthday in that prison cell.