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Azerbaijan's Political Prisoners, the State and its Secret Society

Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist of world renown. Photo by Abas Atillay, RFER/L. Creative commons.

Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist of world renown. Photo by Abas Atillay, RFER/L. Creative commons.

Is this Azerbaijan's pro-government take on the Illuminati?

A new chapter in the sorry lament of Azerbaijan's justice system is the appearance of pop-up trial attendants that fill out courtrooms for important hearings, apparently to deny spaces to other spectators. Some say they can also throw a rock or two when needed.

They have been a key feature in ongoing proceedings against well-known investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova. Ismayilova has been held since December 5 on charges of inciting suicide, tax evasion, illegal business activity, abuse of office and embezzlement.

They have also taken up numerous seats at the trial of rights activists Leila and Arif Yunus, accused last year of spying on Azerbaijan for rivalrous neighbour Armenia.

Critics across the world have declared the charges against Ismayilova and the Yunus’ as bogus and an attempt to silence critical voices inside Azerbaijan, one of the most repressive states in the former Soviet Union.

These nameless trial attendants are typically welcomed with open arms by internal staff, avoiding by means of a miracle — or perhaps secret hand shake — the scrutiny that family members, friends, and colleagues of defendants typically face when trying to access proceedings.

They carry cell phones, which are normally are not allowed in court, and occupy the majority of available seats inside the poky courtrooms. When approached by journalists, they present themselves as relatives and friends of the defendants and yet fail to know anything about them.

But their skill set is allegedly not confined to passive trial-watching.

During Ismayilova’s trial, which began July 24, some local reporters from Azerbaijan's under-pressure press attempted filming behind the court, where Ismayilova's supporters were rallying. They were pelted with rocks by unknown assailants for their troubles.

No-one took responsibility for the attack. But if it wasn’t the work of the secret society then who was it?

With the mystery attendants occupying all the good seats, Ismayilova’s friends and colleagues had to stand and wait outside the courtroom, chanting Khadija’s name in support and clapping as loudly as possible.

The repressive Azeri state is an expert at political stuffing. It stuffs ballot-boxes with votes, newspapers with lies, and now, it seems, courtrooms with fake attendants.

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