A University of Virginia School of Law professor recently produced a report finding that an opposition leader in Azerbaijan was unfairly prosecuted and convicted — then, just days later, he was arrested again.

The Clooney Foundation for Justice had asked Professor Darryl Brown ’90 to review Tofig Yagublu’s case file to produce a TrialWatch report, which was released in December. Based on the human rights organization’s letter grade system, Brown’s report gave the Azerbaijani trial a “D” for court fairness, with an “F” being the worst.

“Yagublu’s case ha[d] all the hallmarks of a politically motivated trial,” Brown said. “The trial court ignored significant evidence that the charges were a sham and an effort to target Yagublu as a prominent opposition voice.”

Yagublu is a former journalist, former deputy chairman of the opposition party and senior member of the National Council of Democratic Forces, a coalition of opposition parties and activists. The outspoken critic had faced criminal and administrative prosecutions for decades before he was tried, convicted and sentenced to four years on “hooliganism” charges stemming from a 2020 incident involving a car accident in the former Soviet republic.

He was released on parole in July 2021 after serving 15 months but was arrested again on Dec. 20 — just six days after Brown’s TrialWatch report, criticizing the process in Yagublu’s case, went public. A district court ordered Yagublu to be held in pretrial custody for up to four months, pending investigation on new forgery and fraud charges, according to Human Rights Watch.

Before Yagublu was arrested on the 2020 hooliganism charges, the European Court of Human Rights had already condemned the Azerbaijani authorities’ conduct in two earlier cases against Yagublu. Brown found that Yagublu’s hooliganism charges matched a broader pattern of harassment of journalists and opposition party members in Azerbaijan — often on ostensibly neutral charges.

Yagublu has also challenged his hooliganism conviction before the European Court, an appeal TrialWatch plans to support. TrialWatch monitors criminal trials globally against those who are most vulnerable, including journalists and democracy defenders, and advocates for the rights of the unfairly imprisoned, according to its website. It partners with western legal experts like Brown to identify and publicize instances of abuse in such trials.

A former public defender, Brown teaches criminal law, criminal adjudication and evidence at UVA Law, and occasionally teaches international criminal law and transnational criminal law. He is the O. M. Vicars Professor of Law and the Hunton Andrews Kurth Professor of Law at UVA, and the author of “Free Market Criminal Justice: How Democracy and Laissez Faire Undermine the Rule of Law.”

To prepare the report, Clooney’s TrialWatch project had native speakers observe the trial to provide Brown translated transcripts of the hearings, proceedings and orders, he said. Staff at the Clooney Foundation wrote summaries of the legal issues under international law, which Brown relied on in drafting his report.

“We know corrupt governments aren’t going to pay attention to this, but we do hope that it can have some influence on companies and others who are doing business with these countries,” Brown said. “It also brings it to the attention of the international human rights community to hopefully get some leverage with players who might be able to influence the governments.”

In Yagublu’s hooliganism case, the prosecution alleged that he caused a car crash and then physically assaulted the two people who were in the other vehicle. Yagublu’s defense team said he had been sitting in his parked car when another vehicle crashed into his car — and that car’s occupants then attempted to incite a confrontation. Yagublu said he called the police and stayed in his car until they arrived, because he believed he was being set up.

Brown said the trial violated his internationally recognized right to the presumption of innocence, to present evidence in his own defense and to confront prosecution witnesses, among other issues.

“Azerbaijan must remedy these violations, first by setting aside Mr. Yagublu’s conviction and, going forward, by adopting reforms that demonstrate the state’s commitment to fair trial procedures that comply with fundamental requirements of international law,” Brown said.

The Clooney Foundation for Justice was co-founded by George and Amal Clooney and does work in more than 40 countries. Amal Clooney is a practicing human rights lawyer.

Students in the UVA Law International Human Rights Clinic have worked previously with the Clooney Foundation to issue a TrialWatch report detailing human rights abuses when 57 Nigerians were arrested in a 2018 hotel raid on suspicions they were engaged in homosexual activity. Homosexual conduct is a crime in that country. The director of that clinic, Professor Camilo Sánchez, has also authored a new TrialWatch report assigning an “F” to Guatemala’s trial of an investigative journalist. (See sidebar)

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