The arduous trip takes Nigar Yagublu from the Surakhani settlement in Baku, located on the southeastern edge of the Absheron Peninsula, to the Justice Ministry’s Penitentiary Service facility #13 where her father Tofig has been incarcerated since January 2013. Human rights groups describe Tofig Yagublu as a political prisoner, and charges against him are widely viewed as fabricated.
“We get excited when it rains as the dust settles down. However, it gets so muddy around here, you can’t even imagine. Even the inside of the prison gets muddy all over. Therefore, prisoners have to wear rubber boots at all times,” Nigar tells Meydan TV. “Imagine all those prisoners who have lived in those conditions for years. Those with asthma suffer the most. They cannot live in such conditions.”
The Yagublus are a well-known family of rights defenders and activists of the Azerbaijani opposition party Musavat. Civic participation runs deep in the family. Tofig Yagublu is the deputy chairman of the opposition Musavat party. The family of vocal opponents of repression actively participated in a number of pro-democracy rallies, for which they paid a heavy price. They rallied for basic political freedoms and accountability.
“All we demand is freedom of assembly, which is practically non-existent at the moment,” Tofig Yagublu once said. “We demand free elections, an end to corruption and pressure on journalists and reporters. That is all we’re asking for.”
For a long time, Tofig’s two daughters, Nigar and Nargiz were lost in their father’s shadow, which is not uncommon in the male-dominated society of Azerbaijan. Nigar and Nargiz’s activist work dates back to 2009 when they were both in their early twenties.
“Five years ago when they said the Yagublu family, they meant my father only. Nigar and Nargiz Yagublu were in the background,” Nigar recollects.
But they were determined to make names for themselves, while following in their famous father’s footsteps and learning the makeshift rules of street activism. Nigar recollects the familiar pull of streets protests, a deep-seated desire to make one’s voice heard.
“We both always tried with Nargiz. We used to attend protests that our father participated in. We both tried not to be in the same place as our father,” Nigar shares. “Therefore, we were always trying to stick together. For instance, I was always with Nargiz, and our father was away surrounded with like-minded people.”
“Then we would come back home and watch the footages. My father would praise us for courage. Nargiz got the most of it though,” she says.
Price to pay for speaking out
But in a country where at least 33 human rights defenders are currently held behind bars, according to theHuman Rights Watch, and authorities stifle civil society by routinely imposing travel bans on journalists or freezing bank accounts of civic groups, there is a price to pay for this type of actions.
That day came in August 2012 when Nigar got into a car accident, which killed Musavat Party Assembly member Aydin Ajalov. Nigar was injured but survived. About two weeks later, Nigar was arrested on the charges of recklessly causing the death of the victim, and violating traffic rules and vehicle maintenance, despite still suffering from a post-accident trauma.
“When I was arrested, it had only been two weeks since the accident. I was still coping with the aftershocks from the accident. I was still stressed out,” Nigar says.
This was not the first time that Nigar was arrested. She was previously detained during the January 26, 2012 protests in Baku and held in custody for three days. But that time, the activist got away with a fine of 500 manats (USD 635 at that time) for “violating public order.”
This time, however, was different.
The absurdity of the injured woman’s arrest was compounded by murky circumstances and the fact that the victim’s family had not even filed a complaint against Nigar. Rights groups described Nigar’s arrest as an attempt to pressure the Yagublus, and her attorney Nemat Karimli noted several irregularities in the process.
“Nigar had a shock after the car crash,” Karimli said. “Instead of appraisal by experts for clarifying Nigar Yagublu’s psychological state, the investigator summoned her to give a testimony. She gave her first testimony on September 4th. She was interrogated in a state of shock. She gave the second testimony on September 10th. This step by investigator was illegal.”
“Nigar’s mother told me that Nigar had raved every night while she was sleeping,” he added. “She was interrogated in this state.”
The Absheron District Court ordered Nigar’s arrest on September 11, 2012.
“This is the first case in Azerbaijan, in which a suspect was sent to a two-month pre-trial detention under the disposition of the article 283.2,” Karimli added referring to the Criminal Code article on involuntary vehicular manslaughter.
Pro-government media brimmed with falsehoods about the incident, the Yagublus say.
“The papers were unprofessionally falsified,” Tofig says about how the state media covered his daughter’s arrest. “It was a complete lie. It is a shame.”
In one instance, Trend.az alleged that Nigar intentionally ignored seven summons notices for questioning “without a valid reason,” even though Nigar was physically and psychologically incapable of testifying, according to her lawyer.
Still reeling from her own injuries and struggling to make sense of the senseless, Nigar found herself in a surreal state of disbelief – an innocent girl thrown into jail like a criminal, whose world slowly started to fall asunder.
“I couldn’t help but compare myself and my situation with the old Turkish movies where the main character was falsely accused and jailed,” Nigar says. “In those Turkish movies, an innocent girl is put behind bars for no reason. I knew exactly what ‘that girl’ went through.”
The accident was a pretext for the authorities to go after the well-known family, many believe. A litany of tragedies has plagued the Yagublus since then.
“Kurdakhani proved me wrong”
Human rights organizations lambasted the arrest as politically motivated and deeply fabricated. On December 19, 2012, Nigar was sentenced to 2 years and 6 months in prison. In jail, Nigar was dubbed “the girl from the internet” for her activism and social media reactions to her arrest.
In March 2013, Nigar’s punishment was softened. She was transferred to a so-called “settlement-type” prison in the village of Lokbatan near Baku, where she was allowed to spend 12 hours a day at large.
But the joy of reuniting with her family was soiled by her father’s absence.
Just a couple of months before leaving prison, Nigar’s father Tofig was detained and thrown into Kurdakhani, a notorious detention facility where the majority of Azerbaijan’s political prisoners languish.
The news of her father’s arrest came as no surprise to Nigar, who was still incarcerated at that time.
“I just laughed wondering why they would arrest him now,” she recollects.
“The fact that he was in Kurdakhani…When I arrived in Kurdakhani, I thought to myself that I would be released in a week or so. However, Kurdakhani proved me wrong. Those who get here don’t leave in a week,” she added.
Tofig Yagublu and another prominent oppositionist Ilgar Mammadov were detained over events in Ismayilli, a northern town where civil disturbance occurred on January 23-24, 2013. The unrest took place in reaction to the “rude behavior” of relatives and aides of the local governor, as Meydan TV earlier reported. Local residents burned down hotel “Chyrag,” which led to scuffles between the police and locals.
Both Mammadov and Yagublu were accused of involvement in the unrest and incitement to mass violence. The court proceedings were held amid gross irregularities, including forced and fabricated testimonies, according to rights groups, the US State Department and the Foreign Office of the UK. The defendants were crammed in a cell of 18 inmates. Many witnesses summoned to testify against Mammadov and Yagublu did not even recognize the defendants. The two had reportedly spent only one hour in Ismayilli on January 24, when the situation was relatively calm.
In a predictable turn of events, on March 17, 2014, the Sheki Court of Grave Crimes found Mammadov and Yagublu guilty. Yagublu was sentenced to five years in prison, and Mammadov to seven. In May of the same year, the European Court of Human Rights found violations of basic human rights provisions in arresting and sentencing Mammadov and ordered Azerbaijan to pay a compensation of 22,000 euros. While the Azerbaijani government did pay the sum, it has ignored repeated calls for Mammadov’s release made by the Council of Europe and several international human rights organizations.
“To celebrate the decision of the European Court, I should get a cake for them as well,” Nigar suggested as she prepared to pay another visit to her father. “It is a big deal for inmates that now someone will bring a cake, and we will celebrate something.”
Apart from bringing a cake, the family also brings groceries and prepared meals to prison to last for at least a few days. “We prepare other dishes as well. Sometimes we get prepared food or buy groceries so that they can cook for themselves,” Nigar says. “The food I make lasts for two days only. So instead of eating old food, they make it fresh for themselves.”
Both Yagublu and Mammadov were then transferred to the Justice Ministry’s Penitentiary Service facility #13. In June last year, Turan reported that the detention center did not have access to drinking water.
Reunited for tragedy
When Nigar was freed from jail, she felt a mix of relief and sadness since she could not share the moment of freedom with her father. But the next time she reunited with Tofig was far from a joyous occasion.
On April 23, 2015, Nigar’s sister Nargiz died in childbirth in Tomsk, Russia. She was sick withhepatitis, which complicated her pregnancy and debilitated her condition during labor. Nargiz, who was also a youth activist with Musavat and contributor to Yeni Musavat newspaper, died at the age of 26. A day later, Tofig was released for seven days to attend his daughter’s funeral. Nargiz Yagublu
“It was too early for her,” Tofig says. “She didn’t fit the grave when we buried her. Nargiz did not want to leave this world. Not at all.”
The loss left an irreparable void in the family, already shaken by a litany of woes and tragedies. Harassment from repressive authorities paled by comparison with the pain of losing Nargiz to a merciless disease.
“I still cannot accept this loss,” Nigar says. “I can’t even visit her grave. I go there but very rarely. In fact, my mom goes there often, but I can’t. Losing her hurt me so much. Going there to see her hurts even more. I don’t want the pain to get stronger by visiting her grave.”
Now as she diligently prepares meals for her father, picks groceries and assembles lists of required items, Nigar accepts these trials with a gracious composure and calm. Nigar is currently unemployed but heavily involved in advocacy work campaigning for the release of her father and other political prisoners.
Theirs is a cautionary story amid many others the regime tries to convey to those who dare to challenge it – families torn apart, irreparable losses and years wasted in jail in dismal conditions.
This article was produced by Meydan TV in collaboration with the No Political Prisoners project.