Open Letter to the Presidium of the Azerbaijani Bar Association

4 December 2019

The undersigned organisations condemn the disproportionate disciplinary measures by the Azerbaijani Bar Association against Azerbaijani human rights lawyer Shahla Humbatova on 27 November 2019. Humbatova’s suspension and pending disbarment is the latest sign that the Presidium of the Azerbaijani Bar is systematically undermining the legal profession in Azerbaijan and depriving Azerbaijanis of the opportunity to seek redress and remedy when their rights are violated.

The Presidium of the Bar decided to suspend Humbatova on the basis of a complaint from a past client and the alleged failure to pay several months of Bar membership dues. Humbatova admits to accidentally falling behind in her bar payments, and rejects the rest of the accusations. The decision to suspend her license and seek her disbarment are an unambiguously disproportionate punishment. 

The case is seen as a part of the relentless persecution of independent lawyers in Azerbaijan. In recent years, a growing number of independent lawyers have been subjected to harassment, criminal prosecution and disbarment in retaliation for their work on  high profile and politically sensitive cases, especially those concerning human rights violations.

Earlier this year, the Azerbaijani Bar Association threatened Humbatova with disciplinary proceedings after  the Azerbaijani penitentiary service filed a complaint against her for spreading allegedly false information after she spoke publicly about the hunger strike and the poor health condition of her client, the then-political prisoner and blogger Mehman Huseynov in January 2019. Following this, the penitentiary service also regularly denied Humbatova access to her imprisoned clients. Although no disciplinary measures were then taken against Humbatova, such actions are indicative of the authorities’ and the Bar’s retaliatory policies towards lawyers who exercise their right to freedom of expression. 

Humbatova has defended numerous high profile Azerbaijani political prisoners and is currently representing several defendants in the Ganja Case, where her clients’ accounts of brutal torture, forced confessions and fabricated evidence have attracted widespread attention.

The decision to suspend Humbatova’s licence and seek for her disbarment means that she will no longer be able to carry out her work as a defense lawyer. In accordance with a series of amendments made to Azerbaijan’s Civil and Administrative Codes of Civil and Administrative Proceduresthat entered into force in January 2018, non-Bar members are not allowed to appear in court or formally represent clients.

The Azerbaijani Bar Association currently has approximately 1,600 members, the number of which remains very low in the context of a population of almost 10 million. Most of the lawyers are not willing to work on human rights or other politically sensitive cases. The Bar Association is notorious for initiating disciplinary proceedings against members who have defended clients in such cases or who speak out about abuses of their clients’ rights in detention. The disciplinary process appears to be abused as a means of harassment of lawyers and many recent disciplinary cases against human rights lawyers, including Irada Javadova, Yalchin Imanov, Alayif Hasanov and Khalid Bagirov, raise serious concerns of a lack of independence of the Bar Association and inappropriate state influence. Each new disbarment, suspension, or reprimand serves as a warning to any Bar member who is considering human rights work. At the same time, the Bar admission process allows for arbitrary decisions to be taken when examining candidates, which prevent highly qualified independent lawyers, especially those working on human rights issues, from joing the Bar Association.

The undersigned organisations urge the Azerbaijani Bar Association to reinstate Humbatova’s license and those of other human rights lawyers who have been disbarred on arbitrary grounds, and to protect, rather than undermine the independence of the legal profession in Azerbaijan. We also call on the government of Azerbaijan to comply with international standards on the protection of the legal profession, including those contained in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights and the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers.

Civil Rights Defenders
Crude Accountability 
Freedom House
International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute
International Partnership for Human Rights
Lawyers for Lawyers