In Azerbaijan, couriers are facing intimidation and arrests at the hands of the state

Image by Rowan Freeman. Free to use under Unsplash License.

At least three members of a Worker's Desk Trade Union Confederation in Azerbaijan have been facing arrests since August 1, 2023. Afiaddin Mammadov, Elvin Mustafayev, and Aykhan Israfilov were reprimanded for organizing, representing, and speaking up about violations of courier workers’ rights. Each has been sentenced to administrative or pre-trial detentions on bogus charges. Supporters have started sharing the hashtag #TəqibiDayandır [#StopTheProsecution] in protest of the detentions.

The Worker's Desk Union was set up in 2022 by a group of workers fighting against labor exploitation in Azerbaijan. They provide free legal assistance to workers, strive to revive the tradition of trade unions, organize workers, and encourage them to fight together. Within the desk, there is a separate group, the United Couriers Trade Union, which was set up to represent the rights of couriers specifically.

One of the couriers, who is a member of the union, spoke of the intimidation he has faced from officials. In a Facebook post shared on August 14, Zeynalov said he was quitting the union for the sake of his and his family's safety. “In order to avoid persecution, so that my own life, as well as the life of my family, are not in danger, I will end the meetings with the members of the union and stay away from the processes from this moment forward. This is the last status I write,” wrote Zeynalov. In the same post, he also said he would be deactivating his Facebook account. Orkhan Zeynalov, 30, has worked much of his life helping his mother. He has been doing courier work for some time now. Last year, when the courier company he worked for dropped tariffs from AZN 2.50 (USD $1.47) to AZN 1.50 (USD $0.88) per kilometer, he started a boycott and was joined by thousands of other couriers.

In a heartfelt Facebook post, Zeynalov shared that this was when his troubles began. He was arrested for writing a post on Facebook calling for equitable pay for couriers and told to delete the post. “I was very scared, I wanted to go back to my family. I gave them my phone and told them to do whatever they wanted,” recalled Zeynalov. Even so, he was sentenced to administrative detention on the grounds that he resisted police — a common charge used in Azerbaijan for arbitrary arrests — and used profane language against them. Neither charge had any basis. Zeynalov was arrested from his home after police cut off electricity to his apartment. When Zeynalov went to see what was happening, he was taken in for questioning and, despite his cooperation, sentenced to administrative detention.

Zeynalov was released 30 days later, left to deal with the trauma of his incarceration.

Zeynalov wrote that the arrest of Afiaddin Mammadov, the chair of the union, was not something he could keep quiet about. After expressing support to Mammadov, Zeynalov was called in for questioning. This time, however, police threatened him with arrest if he did not pay an outstanding debt from 2012.

When police arrested Aykhan Israfilov, another courier and member of the union, Zeynalov went to visit his family. The two were friends. On the way back, he realized he was being followed. In an interview with Meydan TV, Zeynalov explained in detail how he had to abandon his motorcycle at some point during the chase as he suspected the vehicle was being tracked and was forced to hide until early morning hours. After Zeynalov spoke of the chase, the Ministry of the Interior refuted the claims that there was any criminal case against Zeynalov.

The reason the police are after the couriers

The recent wave of arrests and persecution are linked to the changes adopted to Article 27 of the Law on Traffic in December 2022, which went into effect on August 1, 2023, that created difficult new registration requirements. Since then, scores of couriers have had their motorcycles confiscated, effectively preventing them from earning a livelihood. According to passed amendments to the article, drivers must register license plates and the associated driver's licenses for all motorcycles with speed capabilities exceeding 50 km per hour. However, in order to get registration plates, vehicle owners must obtain a customs declaration, which is not available at the time of purchasing the vehicle.

According to the Worker Desk Trade Union Confederation, the fault lies in the way these vehicles are brought into the country — as spare parts — for the sake of avoiding paying taxes. As such, drivers buying the vehicles cannot obtain the required customs declaration. “Corruption in the country shows itself in this area as well,” read the statement by the union on August 1. “Now the couriers who are suffering from unemployment and trying to provide for themselves and their families are suffering the penalty of tax evasion and illegal profit of the companies that bring the motorcycles.”

It is not just those activist workers who are calling to respect their rights and let them work, but also those who speak up on behalf of those who are being persecuted. For someone like Zeynalov, questions loom — will he, too, face arrest and prison on bogus charges for speaking up?

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