When Khalid Bagirov, a prominent defense lawyer in Azerbaijan, was disbarred in 2015 while working a case involving a political activist, it was yet another cause for alarm. How so? The Caucasian country of nearly 10 million is full of bureaucracy — where lawyers typically flourish — so it should be teeming with others like him. As it turns out, every attorney counts in the former Soviet republic, where the legal profession finds itself confronting a government determined to clamp down on its numbers and redefine its role in society.
Based on figures from the Azerbaijani Bar Association (ABA):
Azerbaijan has roughly one bar-approved lawyer for every 10,000 citizens — the lowest rate in Europe.
The ABA says it has 1,503 members on the books, the majority of which — 806 — are located in Baku, the capital city. That’s compared to roughly 10 lawyers per 10,000 citizens in neighboring Georgia and around 38 attorneys per 10,000 people in the U.S. Even Azeri officials are concerned about the low ratio. Recently, the ABA moved to boost the legal headcount.
These days, that low statistic is more significant than it used to be. Prior to this year, non-bar attorneys were free to practice all manner of non-criminal law. Insiders estimate there are 250,000 civil and administrative cases currently open, almost all of which have traditionally been handled by non-bar lawyers while their counterparts focused on criminal proceedings. But a new law enacted in January effectively stripped them of those privileges — now only bar-approved members are allowed inside a courtroom.
The goal in authoritarian regimes is to monopolize control over all spheres of life.
Khalid Bagirov, Azeri defense lawyer
Government supporters insist the new measure is aimed at boosting the quality of Azerbaijan’s legal system — but critics beg to differ. Instead, they believe it’s about the government keeping closer tabs on the legal profession more broadly, part of what Amnesty International says is Azerbaijan’s descent “deeper into the abyss of rightlessness.”
Bagirov knows firsthand. Temporarily disbarred twice before, he was kicked out of the ABA for good in 2015 after defending an opposition politician who planned to challenge Azerbaijan’s iron-fisted president, Ilham Aliyev, at the ballot box. Bagirov’s dismissal reflects what he describes as a broader hostile work environment for independent lawyers, which includes both personal and professional harassment. “The goal in authoritarian regimes is to monopolize control over all spheres of life,” Bagirov says. “That’s how our authoritarian regime is trying to control legal activity: to monopolize it all.”
Certainly, when it comes to freedom of expression, the country’s media could use representation now more than ever. In 2014 the government closed Radio Free Europe’s Azeri bureau. Last August, it brought tax-evasion charges against Turan, the last independent media outlet in the country, according to watchdog group Reporters Without Borders. In May, the courts upheld a move to block five independent online news sites. Small wonder that Reporters Without Borders ranks Azerbaijan 162 out of 180 countries in its 2017 World Press Freedom Index.
Those who attempt to play ball don’t fare any better in the new setup. Take independent attorney Samed Rahimli: Well-educated, fluent in English and, with years of experience, he should have been a shoo-in to the bar when he applied earlier this year. But during his interview, Rahimli sensed his colleagues just weren’t having it — a dynamic he claims has been suspiciously consistent when any human-rights lawyer seeks official certification. “They just say, ‘You failed,’ ” Rahimli says. “But there’s not any kind of objective methodology.” The ABA did not respond to requests for comment.
Only a few human-rights lawyers remain ABA-certified, Bagirov estimates. That’s bad news for a country that international rights organizations say is home to more than 160 political prisoners.
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