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Blinken Pressures Azerbaijani Bar to Reinstate Human Rights Lawyer

March 29, 2021 by Daniel Mollenkamp
In this photo provided by Azerbaijan's Presidential Press Office on Saturday, March 20, 2021, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev gestures while celebrating Novruz Bayramı, a traditional holiday which celebrates the New Year and the coming of Spring outside Shusha, Azerbaijan. Aliyev marked the Nowruz holiday by lighting a ceremonial fire outside Shusha, a culturally revered city that Azerbaijan took from Armenian forces in last autumn's war. Shusha, a center of Azeri culture for centuries, came under Armenian control in 1992 in fighting over the separatist Nagorno-Karabakh region. (Vugar Amrullaev, Azerbaijani Presidential Press Office via AP)

Speaking to a gathering in Chicago last year, Shahla Humbatova, a lawyer from Azerbaijan, joked that well-meaning human rights lawyers in her country greet each other by asking: “Have you been disbarred yet?”

Earlier this month, Humbatova herself was disbarred on the eve of International Women’s Day, allegedly for missing a fee payment to the Azerbaijani Bar Association, which Humbatova says she was not informed about prior to her disbarment. 

On Friday, the U.S. State Department responded, implying that it was retaliation for her human rights work, a means of harassing and silencing her. 

“Her work, and the work of other human rights defenders in Azerbaijan, should be celebrated, not punished, and we call on those responsible to expedite her reinstatement to the Azerbaijani bar,” Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in a written statement.

The statement said that the work of Shahla Humbatova has helped to protect fundamental freedoms and to usher in systemic reforms to Azerbaijan. 

Azerbaijan has a reputation among human rights observers for silencing critics and the lawyers who represent them.

A 2021 Freedom House Report that inspected the civil liberties and political rights of Azerbaijan described the judiciary as “corrupt and subservient to the executive.” It is a country awash in trumped-up charges against people pushing for change, according to the report. 

In addition, women in the country face rigid gender roles. At the time she won the award, Humbatova was one of only two prominent female human rights lawyers in the country. She had faced backlash from her own family for stepping out of domesticity and into legal work. 

Humbatova had won the U.S. Secretary of State’s International Woman of Courage award and was hosted by WorldChicago as part of the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program last year. 

Humbatova, who has practiced as a lawyer since 2013, had been picked out by the State Department for fearlessly tackling human rights issues, including defending bloggers, journalists, and youth activists.

At that Chicago event, commenting on the prospect of her own disbarment, the loss of her high-profile career, and her source of livelihood, she replied stoically.

“This is what I do,” she said. “It’s not courage—it’s responsibility.”

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