There should be no political prisoners’ defenders in the Bar Association of the Azerbaijan Republic

There should be no political prisoners’ defenders in the Bar Association of the Azerbaijan Republic

Shahla Humbatova

Analysis of violation of law during Shahla Humbatova’s judicial proceedings

Baku City Administrative Court 

Case №2-1 (112)-620/2021

5 March 2021  

Judge:  Aytan Orujzade

Plaintiff: the Azerbaijan Republic Bar Association 

Representative of the plaintiff: Ilhama Hasanova

Defendant: Shahla Humbatova

Defendant’s representative and attorney: Elchin Sadigov 

Shahla Humbatova, who previously worked for various international organizations, has been a member of the Azerbaijan Republic Bar Association since 2014. Humbatova has defended many public and political figures, as well as journalists. Sh.Humbatova had been an attorney of a well-known human rights activist Intiqam Aliyev, the chairman of the “ReAl” Party Ilqar Mammadov, also a journalist Seymur Hazi. She had participated in the defence of those arrested in the so-called “Nardaran” and “Ganja” cases, and defended a famous blogger Mehman Huseynov, the civil society activists who had been arrested on charges of administrative offenses, as well as the LGBT representatives, women from the Feminist Movement and many other opposition activists arrested on political grounds. She had also been a representative of citizens whose homes had been illegally demolished on Sovetskaya street in Baku downtown. As a lawyer, Shahla Humbatova has participated in numerous international conferences on the protection of human rights. As a lawyer, Shahla Humbatova has participated in numerous international conferences on the protection of human rights.

The Bar Association of the Azerbaijan Republic’s biased attitude towards her was manifested in 2018, when she defended the well-known blogger Mehman Huseynov. In December 2018, two months prior to the end of M. Huseynov’s sentence, a new criminal case was initiated against the blogger, regarding an attack on the penal institution employee, in which he had been held. Then M. Huseynov went on a hunger strike, and the lawyer had a meeting with her client in the colony. The Ministry of Justice’s official statement with regard to the blogger’s good health did not correspond to reality. During the meeting the lawyer stated that his health had deteriorated, the veins on his legs had ruptured and some other complications had been arisen and noticed. On the day of their meeting in the colony, M. Huseynov asked Sh. Humbatova to inform the public of his real state of health, which the lawyer did by posting the content on the social network Facebook. Thereafter, Sh. Humbatova faced pressure from the authorities. She was summoned by the Chairman of the Bar Association, Anar Bagirov, who demanded Sh. Humbatova to report to the press only those information that the state structures had previously provided. The Chairman also warned Sh. Humbatova that if she continued to act as she did before, she would be subjected to appropriate measures.

In January 2019, the European Parliament demanded the release of Mehman Huseynov from the Azerbaijani authorities, and in Baku, there was a rally demanding the blogger’s freedom on 19 January 2019. In late January 2019, during the Winter Session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), Humbatova was called to an event related to the protection of human rights, at which the members of the event were discussing the case of the arrested blogger Mehman Huseynov. As a result of both domestic and international pressure, the second criminal case against M. Huseynov was discontinued. On 2 March 2019, M. Huseynov was released upon completion of his first sentence.

Right after that, Shahla Humbatova has been facing many obstacles, when visiting places of detention.

In April 2019, Sh. Humbatova addressed with an official letter to the Bar Association, in which she pointed out at the fact that she had been prevented from visiting her clients in the detention facilities. In her letter, Sh. Humbatova asked the Chairman of Association to help her and assist in resolving this issue. However, the lawyer did not receive any response to her request.

Next, Shahla Humbatova wrote a crucial post on Facebook regarding the created obstacles to visiting her defendants, after which she received a call from the Bar Association Chairman, Anar Bagirov, who accused her in rude manner (shouting) of lying. On the following day, she received a phone call from the Bar Association informing her that the disciplinary proceedings against her had been initiated. Later, it became known that the complaint was related to the case of Mehman Huseynov. It caused a firestorm of discussion on social networks. The International organizations made strong statements concerning the initiated harassment against the lawyer and pointed out the previous expulsions of lawyers from the Bar, who defended the rights of political prisoners: Alaif Hasanov, Khalid Bagirov, Yalchin Imanov and some others.

On 27 November 2019, the Presidium of the Bar Association, following the complaint of the citizen R. Qurbanova, considered the decision of the Disciplinary Commission and made a decision to apply to the court requesting the termination of Shahla Humbatova’s lawyer’s practice. According to the complaint against Sh. Humbatova, she submitted false documents to the court, obtained money from applicants in public catering places, failed to attend the trial without a valid reason, and has not paid her membership fee to the Bar Association for the past 6 months. In accordance with the Bar Association’s statement, the citizen R. Qurbanova paid 1.300 manat to Sh. Humbatova to attend the trial and submit requests, but the lawyer failed to give R. Qurbanova a corresponding payment receipt, and also asked her to sign a blank form. Furthermore, R. Qurbanova stated that the lawyer had submitted to the court documents about the fee in the amount of 3,000 manat.

The Bar Association appealed to the Anti-Corruption Department of the General Prosecutor’s Office of the Azerbaijan Republic to investigate that complaint. Shahla Humbatova announced that she had not received any official notification from the Department. The only call from the Department she received was to inform her that they had received some material, which was being investigated. Sh. Humbatova refused to testify. On 28 November 2019, the Bar Association made a decision to suspend Sh. Humbatova’s lawyer practice.

Shahla Humbatova commented on the Bar Association’s statement as,

“I signed a contract with this citizen for 3,000 manats, the receipt for the same amount was given to her, but that woman, having cheated me, paid only 1,000 manats. No one suffered any kind of loss but me. They are trying to fabricate a case on such an absurd issue”.

On 5 March 2021 the Baku City Administrative Court ruled to expel the lawyer Shahla Humbatova from the Azerbaijan Bar Association.

It should be noted that on 4 March 2020, Sh. Humbatova was awarded the “Brave Women” International award on behalf of the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Commentary by expert lawyer:

The court verdict is unlawful and unjustified. The Bar Association’s lawsuit against Shahla Humbatova there are two grounds on which the Bar Association made a decision to expel S. Humbatova from the Bar Association:

  • failure to pay membership fees for a period of 6 months;
  • unethical lawyer’s conduct based on a citizen’s complaint and it may undermine the lawyer’s reputation.

Sh. Humbatova found out about the membership fee arrears only through the complaint. In the complaint, it was stated that she had familiarized herself with the materials of the disciplinary proceedings and that they allegedly contained the financial department’s request for arrears on membership fees. But in reality, Sh. Humbatova has read the disciplinary materials including only Rukhsara Qurbanova’s complaint (it was handwritten in Russian) and the Baku City Yasamal District Court materials, and there was no information on the arrears on membership fees. She was not informed about the arrears of membership fees by the representative of Bar Association, Ilhama Hasanova, with whom she repeatedly spoke over the phone. The issue of arrears was not a subject of discussion between Sh. Humbatova and the Bar Association. Sh. Humbatova was not informed about the arrears till the expiration of six months. On 29 November 2019, all arrears of membership fees were paid by Sh. Humbatova, and there is a corresponding receipt from the bank.

According to the Law of the Republic of Azerbaijan On lawyers and legal practice,

“I. Advocacy in the Azerbaijan Republic is an independent legal institution that professionally carries out legal defense practice.”

According to the Article 3 of the above mentioned Law,

“The main objectives of advocacy are the protection of rights, freedoms and legally protected interests of individuals and legal entities and the provision of high quality legal aid to them”.

It is known, that Shahla Humbatova defended many political prisoners, “prisoners of conscience”, she is reputable among the international attorneys, she defended her clients in good faith and competently and never had to face such problems.

The Article 5 of the Law of the Azerbaijan Republic On lawyers and legal practice states,

“Advocacy shall be carried out on the basis of the priority of human and civil rights and freedoms, the rule of law, independence of lawyers, voluntary relations between lawyers and persons seeking their legal assistance, regardless of their race, nationality, religion, language, gender, origin, property status, official position, beliefs, political parties, trade unions and other public associations membership, and in compliance with legal ethics.”

There are disciplinary measures that can be imposed on lawyers enumerated in the Article 22 of the Law On lawyers and legal practice,

  • notice;
  • reprimand;
  • prohibition to practice law for a period from three months to one year;
  • exclusion from the Bar.

The court did not clarify the reason why the plaintiff (the Bar Association) had requested the court to impose the harshest disciplinary measure against the lawyer, namely expulsion from the Bar.

According to the Article 2 of the Regulation on Advocates’ Conduct, the advocates are independent and subject to the requirements of the law only. The main requirement is a lawyer being fully independent with regard to his/her conduct.

Under the Article 6 (1) of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, Shahla Humbatova was entitled to a fair trial. However, she was deprived of that right, the trial was conducted in a biased manner. In this case, as in many others related to the lawyers’ human rights exclusion from the Azerbaijan Republic Bar Association, the independence of the court could only be questioned. It can be demonstrated even by the outward signs of the trial.

Furthermore, along with a violation of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the Article 13 (Right to an effective remedy) was also violated.

As to the effectiveness of a remedy, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) jurisprudence has clarified that it does not depend, in terms of the purposes of the Article 13, on an unambiguous predetermination of a favorable outcome. The European Convention stipulates that remedies should generally be effective, both in practice and in law, in particular that their use should not be unreasonably hindered by the acts or, on the contrary, by the omissions of the national authorities. The European Court of Human Rights stated this principle in its judgment of 25 May 1998 in the case of Kurt v. Turkey.

Considering all of the above, we can come to the conclusion that the pressure on human rights lawyers in Azerbaijan has still not stopped. The European Court of Human Rights is currently hearing more than one complaint by human rights lawyers who have been expelled from the Bar Association for their practice. Moreover, there are already ECHR decisions on similar cases (decisions on the following lawyers complaints – Intiqam Aliyev, Annagi Hajibeyli, Khalid Bagirov and some others). Despite this, the Azerbaijani National courts are neither guided in their practice by the National Law, nor by the Norms of International Law, nor by the recommendations of International bodies. They also do not follow the precedents of the European Court of Human Rights, which are recommendatory for the Council of Europe member states.