Elchin Abullayev is a Justice Makers fellow based in the former soviet republic of Azerbaijan.  A small country, located on the Caspian sea, north of Iran and south of Russian, Azerbaijan has slowly gained international recognition.  Most recently, a catchy pop tune on Euro Vision catapulted Azerbaijan into the spotlight-a spotlight reserved for highlighting political protest, corruption, and sideline news up until this point.

Elchin hold a meeting with the outreach team and Rafiq

A newly democratic state, Azerbaijan continuously struggled to establish a people, culture and religion apart from Soviet ideals and money.  Although traditionally Muslim, the years of Soviet repression left Azerbaijanis in a middle ground where contemporary values conflict with long held traditions.   Called the land of Fire, Azerbaijan is a country of dynamism and apathy, of change and stagnation, of volatile elements that clash and sometimes merge.

Elchin understands firsthand the volatile and changing structure of his country.  Born into a political family in Shervan, his father was an aide to Elchabay, the first president.  Elchin studied at the Oil Academy before taking a break to serve in the military.  After completing 4 years of military service, Elchin finished his university degree and then went on to be an officer for 2 years.

By the end of that 2 year period, Elchin was immersed in the breathtaking political and social changes taking place.  Elchin demonstrated with thousands in the 2003 protests against the insidious corruption in the government.  They demanded further political distancing from the oppressive Soviet style leadership.  In the midst of one of the protests, plainclothes policemen arrested Elchin.  This was an all too common occurrence in 2003, when men, who were little more than hired thugs, carried out the dirty ground work of corrupt politicians. Elchin spent 2 months in prison.  During this time, he was tortured and abused (under false claims) and denied access to lawyers and services. The injuries from the abuse were severe enough to warrant several hospital visits, resulting in lingering health problems.

Released from prison after 2 months, Elchin was on parole for 4 years.  This prevented him from leaving the country and required him to seek permission to travel to different cities.

The incarceration and parole was the catalyst that resulted in Elchin stepping into the human rights arena to form and create what is now the Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Social Union (DHIRSU). The process of creating an NGO is difficult at best, but it is nearly impossible in a country such as Azerbaijan.  The paper work, bribery and bureaucratic red tape is nearly impossible to overcome.  The government hopes to discourage NGO’s from taking root.  Therefore, while DHIRSU was founded in 2005, it was not officially recognized by the government or officially registered until 2007.  With Elchin at the organization’s helm, DHIRSU expanded its scope to include not only legal services, but also NGO support, outreach programs for former prisoners, and rehabilitation programs for drug users.

As a Justice Fellow, Elchin piloted a unique project that works directly with both former prisoners and those incarcerated to monitor, assist and respond to human rights violations or needs.

It is a two-fold project-utilizing both research and implementation.  Elchin explained to me that since there is little information concerning prisons conditions, livelihoods of released prisoners, level of abuse, drug use and bribery.  A survey was necessary to initially  ascertain the situation.  Furthermore, Elchin says that this type of work hasn’t been conducted extensively in the past is because of the social stigma of fear and shame against those who have been incarcerated. The Justice Fellow project has two main goals that emerged from the continuation and specification of research surveys and work that started several years ago to raise awareness, incite policy change, and improve prison conditions.  In the long term, the project works with prisoners and drug users to ensure and enable a productive, meaningful reintroduction into society in the future.  In the short term, the goal is to build trust with prisoner and drug users through education about rights, medicine, and legal assistance from human rights defenders.

Sociologist Rafiq Tamrazov Rafig plays an important role in designing surveys, analyzing data and providing suggestions for ways to work with prisoners as he works closely with Elchin.  Rafig is also in charge of making sure staff members working on the project or in other aspects of DHIRSU are informed about how to talk to and treat prisoners and former pensioners.

As such a project is laced with cultural, political and physical challenges, Elchin says that seeing immediate results is not possible, but emphasizes that the outreach team (the outreach team is part of the IBJ project that works with those released from prison) is making a positive impact, however small.

Recently, Elchin and the outreach team consisting of Feqan Asadov and Kocheri Nebiye visited one of the hospitals where TB, Drug addicted, HIV/AIDS positive and abused former prisoners are interred.  More sanatorium than hospital, the main building looked abandoned and sat on a plot of land that was sprinkled with crumbling structures, overgrown weeds and rubbish.  Elchin says that most hospitals are similar, citing corruption and lack of government assistance as the main reason for the substandard conditions.  The procedure for receiving permission to work with and/or contact patients at hospitals is cumbersome and formal.  At this particular hospital, the head doctor is always suspicious when the outreach team visits, yet acknowledges that free medicine and lawyers is something that is very much needed.  On this day, the head doctor is particularly nervous about the presence of a photographer, concerned that photos will show his hospital in a bad light.  He emphasizes that each patient receives 3 meals a day and doesn’t have to pay for anything.  He insists that I include that in my story.  The doctor goes on to strongly emphasize that while free medicine and lawyers are needed, his facility is running fine due to his excellent abilities as a doctor.  Elchin and the doctor talked for a while.  They debate the need to reform the facilities and social structures that care for former prisoners.  On this particular day, Feqan and Kocheri distribute syringes filled with medicine and vitamins to 3 rooms, with 4 patients in each room.  In Azerbaijan, there exists a cultural fear of medicine or vitamins in pill form, making it normal to see everyone from teenagers to Xanams (elder women) injecting themselves with 3 inch needles. While distribution of syringes is not ideal, Elchin says that the alternative is for at-risk patients to not receive care, which is worse.  In the rooms themselves, the patients are mostly immobile, skinny, and, due to disabilities, unable to move.  Feqan and Kocheri also hand out literature on safe use and disposal of syringes, as well as information on patients rights and what services DHIRSU can provide.

Living conditions inside the hospitals in Azerbaijan are extremely poor

Case Study

DHIRSU also conducts several surveys and case studies of people who have been victims of unlawful arrest, imprisonment and abuse.  Elchin explains that the case studies are hardly the exception and that the amount of abuse from police is staggering.  As a part of the IBJ project, Elchin tries to work with current prisoners, particularly those with drug addictions or abuse.  This has been, according to Elchin, the most rewarding yet most difficult aspect of the project.  Receiving permission to enter prisons is nearly impossible.  Talking with current prisoners presents its own set of challenges as prisoners are naturally suspicious of most forms of authority.  In many cases, the police have planted informers who report back when prisoners complain or tell the truth about the reality of prison conditions.  Furthermore, many are incarcerated under fabricated charges, leaving them feeling helpless and unable to defend themselves.

Elchin spoke about one case in particular as representative of what happens in Azerbaijan and how DHIRSU and IBJ have assisted.  In October, 2010, Mr. Emin A. (name has been changed) was accosted in the Tartar district by 2 police officers and accused of violating an obscure clause of the criminal clause.  When Emin resisted arrest and refused to admit to committing a crime, he was dragged to the police department and savagely beaten.  In the course of this beating, Emin’s hands were cuffed, his thumbs broken, the bottoms of his feet where bludgeoned and his face repeatedly punched.  The police officers threatened Emin with rape and boasted about how they would incarcerate his family if he didn’t confess.  Unable to withstand the abuse, Emin signed several documents, falsely incriminating himself.  The physical and psychological damages inflicted by this incident are far reaching.  Emin’s kidneys were severely damaged.  He now screams in his sleep and often urinates in the bed due to intense nightmares.  He is also under suicide watch now.  During a monitoring conducted by Elchin, Emin appealed to DHIRSU for help.  As such, a public advocate and psychologist were assigned to the case.  It is estimated that Emin will need 40 hours of psychological counseling and 40 hours of legal assistance carried out weekly over the course of 10 months.  To date, Emin is still under motoring to prevent suicide, but the officers were held accountable for their actions and a trial is being conducted.  Presently, Emin is recovering slowly.  Unfortunately, Emin’s case is not the exception nor is it the worst.  The case studies that DHIRSU has complied are shocking.  There are stories of women beaten so badly they give birth prematurely and of men beaten to death because they refuse to confess to crimes they did not commit.

Elchin will continue to work with victims of abuse and those marginalized by incarceration.  He is committed to addressing these violations of human rights, and instituting policy change.


The opposition party held yet another protest on Sunday, June 19th at Narman Narimanov Metro Stop in Baku Azerbaijan.  The protest was the latest in a string  of Baku protest that have been fueled by the demonstrations and uprisings in nearby middle eastern countries.  Azerbaijan politics, usually characterized by bribery  suppression, and oligarchies, has seen small changes in the past few years.  The collapse of the Soviet Union and the attempts to make Azerbaijan democratic are still seen by both people and politicians as significant events, though occurring in the 1990‘s and early 2000‘s.  The attitude is that, if it was possible to have reform then, why not now?  Seeing oppressive rulers overthrown in Egypt, and Libya, Azerbaijani people have been more bold about speaking out against the government.  Since March 4th, protests have been held with the opposition party leading the movement to demand change in government structures.

At the the most recent protest, Elchin Abdullayev was present with Elchin Behbudov, chairman of the Azerbaijani Committee Against Tortures and Megrur Salmanzadeh from Chanel 13, Internet TV.

Elchin B. works closely with Elchin A. as a liaison between the police, NGO’s and citizens.  He is also in charge of monitoring what events transpire at protests.  Both Elchins’ usually attend all protests and try to monitor the events and activities.  Elchin A. explained to me that their job is difficult as they are technically allowed to be present in police vehicles or offices when any protesters are arrested.  However, they are generally denied access and threatened if the matter is pushed.  Additionally, both men are required at all protests to be neutral and not support or otherwise encourage dissident actions.  Elchin explains to me that the situation is frustrating, yet better than before.  Now at least he and others can record instances of abuse and injustice.

Megrur works with Elchin in the office as a photographer and camera man.  Usually Megrur accompanies Elchin to protests, hospitals and prisons to visually recording protests and cases of abuse.  “It is not an easy job,” says Megrur, “I can record a protester getting beaten, but I cannot help.”  Megrur was on hand at the recent protest with a small video recorder, hoping to capture solid images of what happens in an AZ protest.  Before the fray started, Megrur, hopeful, yet with several ironic laughs, spoke about democracy, human rights and Elchin A’s work.  “It is a long process.  Do I think there will be democracy?  Maybe, but it will be slow.  Maybe democracy, its not easy for Azerbaijan.”

The protest was smaller than the previous ones; however, it is notable that children and babies were present, where as in the past, only young adults and the older generation attended.  Also notable was the increased presence of women.  The protest followed an odd pattern, one that it seems is all too common for Baku:  A person, looking anonymous, will shout ‘Freedom!”  or “Resign.”  The police confront the citizen with blows or by dragging off the yelling protester to a police van.  The press swarm in a melee of clicking shutter and rolling cameras.  Several onlookers talk loudly and usually an older woman will ask the police “Where is your mother?.”   Then tense silence and milling, waiting for the next brave protester to yell a controversial word.

The protest lasted only 2 hours and only 16 people were arrested.  “That number is relatively low,” said Elchin, remarking that the March protest resulted in 200 citizens being thrown in jail and more injuries.  In the aftermath of a protest, Elchin will usually visit a police station to check up on the status of those arrested.  However, today, the police denied him access. Megrur was able to film several protesters being arrested and both Elchin A and Elchin B had conversations with the police.

While no protests are officially planned for the near future, Elchin says that DHIRSU will continue to work with citizens who have been abused for speaking out.