The ICJ today denounced the decision of the Presidium of the Azerbaijan Bar Association, of 23 April 2018, to suspend the licences of two Azerbaijan human rights lawyers Asabali Mustafayev (photo, on the left) and Nemat Karimli (photo, on the right).
The ICJ called on the Presidium to reverse their decision and allow the lawyers to resume their practice.
It stressed that disciplinary proceedings pending against the lawyers should be immediately terminated.
The ICJ said that the decision of the Presidium was contrary to international standards on the role of lawyers including the right to freedom of expression as guaranteed under international law.
The ICJ understands that the proceedings against the two lawyers, initiated following a submission of the Deputy Prosecutor General, were related to the critical statements made by the lawyers in the media, regarding high profile criminal cases.
Nemat Karimli, had stated in media interviews that his client Afgan Mukhtarli, an opposition activist convicted on charges of smuggling, had been illegally and forcibly transferred from Georgia to Azerbaijan and that his life could be at risk if he was returned to Azerbaijan.
The lawyer also complained of excessive searches and being prevented from communicating in private while visiting his client in detention.
The disciplinary proceedings against Asabali Mustafayev relate to allegations he made on social media that the prosecution of politician Gozal Bayramli, on a charge of smuggling, was politically motivated.
Both lawyers were charged with spreading false statements and slanderous information about investigative authorities.
The submission of the Prosecutor to the Bar Association, on 25 October 2017, alleged that lawyers Nemat Karimli and Asabali Mustafayev in their interviews to the media had “politicized” the criminal cases of Bayramli and Mukhtarli, tried to mislead the public and slandered investigative authorities. According to the information provided by the lawyers, no evidence had been attached to this submission.
Instead, the Disciplinary Commission collected evidence to submit to the Presidium of the Bar Association, which subsequently suspended the licence of the lawyers.
Furthermore, the lawyers state that, contrary to what is required by the Law on Lawyers and Advocates Activities, they have not received a copy of the opinion of the Disciplinary Commission submitted to the Presidium of the Bar Association.
The ICJ is concerned that the suspension of the lawyers’ licences, for comments which drew attention to possible violations of human rights, may violate the lawyers’ right to freedom of expression.
These comments appear to be within the bounds of lawyers professional responsibility to protect their clients in every appropriate way (UN Basic Principles, principle 13(b)).
The right to freedom of expression is protected under international treaties to which Azerbaijan is a party, including by Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
The UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers specify that lawyers “…have the right to take part in public discussion of matters concerning the law, the administration of justice and the promotion and protection of human rights …”.
The European Court of Human Rights has emphasized that lawyers are entitled to comment in public on the administration of justice, provided that their criticism does not overstep certain bounds, based on principles of dignity, honor, integrity, and respect for the fair administration of justice.
The ICJ emphasizes that protection of lawyers’ freedom of expression, in particular as regards issues of the rule of law and the administration of justice, is not only important to the individuals in question, it also serves as an important safeguard for the protection of human rights.
Where lawyers are subject to disciplinary sanctions for such statements, the role of lawyers in upholding the rule of law in the administration of justice is undermined.
The ICJ therefore calls on the Azerbaijan Bar Association to lift the disciplinary sanctions that would unjustifiably interfere with lawyers’ freedom of expression.
The ICJ also calls on the Azerbaijan Bar Association to ensure that the lawyers subject to disciplinary proceedings obtain a copy of the opinion to be able to prepare their arguments and defence.
Asabali Mustafayev represented Gozal Bayramli who was found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison for smuggling €12,000 ($13,400) in cash. Mustafayev had expressed his opinion about the arrest of Gozal Bayramli in his social media profile, alleging that it was politically motivated. He stated that when he shared this opinion he was not yet engaged as Gozal Bayramli’s lawyer.
Nemat Karimli represented Afgan Mukhtarli, an opposition activist based in Tbilisi, who was convicted of smuggling € 10,000, illegally crossing the border and resisting police arrest and was sentenced to six years in prison. Karimli in an interview stated that Mukhtarli was taken to Azerbaijan illegally and called on the Georgian authorities not to hand him to Azerbaijan authorities since it might endanger Mukhtarli’s life.