For one Azerbaijani village, justice depends on the English teacher

Journalist: Esmira Javadova,

Photographer: Chichek Bayramli

Edition: Rural Life
Topic: Activism

Northeast of the Azerbaijani capital Baku, muddy roads led to the most frequently knocked-on door in the village of Sitalchay. Wooden lamp posts, which have long since ceased to function, stand like a broken sentry. Malik Zeynalli, who has been writing letters to state institutions requesting the repair of these muddy roads and light poles, lives behind one of the old doors that line these roads. For the people of Sitalchay, he is often their best hope when they need help from the government.

In Azerbaijan, citizens living outside the capital have limited access to legal services. 

The country has the lowest number of lawyers per capita among Council of Europe members. As of October 2022, there are 2240 members of the Azerbaijani Bar Association--470 lawyers operating in the districts (home to around 6 million residents) outside the capital, compared to 1767 serving Baku. This imbalance prevents citizens from enjoying their legal rights.

In October 2017, the Azerbaijani parliament (Milli Majlis) approved amendments to the country’s civil code that would effectively bar roughly 90 percent of the country’s legal professionals from practicing law. From December 1, 2017, “the institution of representation” (public defenders) in civil and administrative courts was abolished in the country. Instead, people can only be represented in court by a lawyer who is a member of the state-run Azerbaijani Bar Association or a close relative.  

Prior to the changes, Azerbaijan had a two-tiered legal system that was adopted under the demand of the Council of Europe. Under that system, Azerbaijani lawyers are either vəkillər, licensed bar members who pass a series of written tests and an oral examination, or hüquqşünaslar, registered lawyers who did not pass the bar but had the right to represent clients in all non-criminal courts. So, until the 2017 amendments, citizens could entrust their legal affairs to any licensed attorney. 

Representatives of the legal community like lawyer Namizad Safarov say the amendments escalated the crackdown on the country’s few remaining human rights lawyers.

“There is a representative institution in the world with a history of 3,000 years. This is called a public defender. Any person with or without a legal qualification could defend any party in court on the basis of a power of attorney. Even in the early 2000s, it could protect the most serious offenders or victims. Among the legal institutions, the most democratic was the institution of representation and protection,” he said.

“At the end of 2017, the President canceled this law without giving any reason. Today, a citizen’s only defense in court is their close relative. In other words, a 90-year-old uneducated grandparent can defend a person in court, but, for example, Namizad Safarov, who has been a lawyer for 40 years, cannot. This means limiting the protection of people's rights. We, as a group of lawyers, have repeatedly appealed to the Chairman of the Milli Majlis, the Legal Department of the Milli Majlis, the General Prosecutor's Office, the Supreme Court, and the Constitutional Court, but we have not received any response to this day.”

Following the amendments, hüquqşünaslar were left unemployed and lawyers (vəkillər) increased their fees, drastically limiting people’s ability to secure legal services.

Following the 2017 amendments, the 1885 residents in the village of Sitalchay in Khizi district,  lost all access to legal aid—today there is not a single lawyer working in the entire district.

The Azerbaijan Bar Association maintains the situation is improving—in response to questions from Chai Khana, the association said the number of lawyers more than doubled in the past five years to 2,240 people. "For the time being, Khizi residents can get legal services from law offices in Sumgayit and Absheron regions [75-90 km away]. In the near future, it is planned to provide a lawyer's office to Khizi residents in their own district,” the association said. 

Lawyer Namizad Safarov argues however that “2,240 lawyers are too few for a country with a population of 10 million. It means one lawyer for every 450 people. The absence of a lawyer's office in Khizi is also due to the small number of lawyers.”

In the vacuum, Malik Zeynalli has proven to be a lifesaver for his neighbors.

For many years, 44-year-old Malik Zeynalli, a resident of Sitalchay village, has tried to provide legal services for impoverished citizens who need pro-bono civil legal aid.

Zeynalli has never trained a lawyer--he has taught English at the local secondary school for 20 years. After work, however, he deals with the social problems of the residents. Sometimes the villagers, who do not find him at home, go to the school and wait for the classes to end to ask for help to write an application. He puts villagers in touch with the media, helps publicize road, electricity, gas, water, and pension problems.

39-year-old Saida Baghirova is a resident of Sitalchay who has sought out his help. Her husband is in prison and she is raising their four children on her own. Two of them—18-year-old son Taleh and 6-year-old son Amin—suffer from cerebral palsy. Both stopped receiving social assistance in 2021. 

“I am illiterate, I did not know where, to whom and how to apply to restore my children's assistance,” she said. “Malik helped me with this. Malik took the lead in collecting documents, applying to the government—in everything. He was finally able to restore the children's allowance in the middle of this year.”

Malik says he deals with the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection of the Population the most frequently.

“This institution hurts people a lot,” he says, noting that in Saida’s case, it took a lot of pushing to get results.  “Imagine, the social benefits of two minors who were born with disabilities were cut off. The mother cares for these children alone. One of the children has severe cerebral palsy and crawls on the ground. I was able to forcibly restore benefits. I went back and forth for a long time, that document, this document... After bureaucratic delays, thankfully, the benefits of those children have been restored for several months.”

Another resident of Sitalchay, Zulfiyya Baghirova, 49, is visually impaired. Her husband Mais also has a disability - he suffers from kidney failure and mental illness. In 2021, suddenly their pension for disability stopped.

“Malik helped us a lot. He took me to Zarifa Aliyeva Ophthalmology Hospital and we went back there several times. He helped us to undergo examinations and collect documents,” she said. “Even if I went myself, I couldn't get anything. Then he sent the documents to the right place, wrote appeals to the president and other government departments on behalf of both my husband and me. Finally, in September 2022, both of our pensions were restored. And now my 10-year-old son needs a spleen operation. Malik will take care of that too. Neither my health nor his father's health allows us to do these things.”

Other common problems concern electricity and gas fines and cutoffs. He prepares individual applications on behalf of subscribers and submits them to the courts. For example, recently he convinced the court to lift a 2,000-manat fine for a fellow villager.

“Meter readers are installed on the street. Some time ago, a passer-by melted the key part of someone's meter reader with a cigarette. Azerigas fined the subscriber more than 2,000 manats. I went to Azerigas and said, ‘why did you write this fine for this individual?’ The people there are also tired of me,” he says with a laugh. “They said the fine is legal. I went home and prepared an appeal to the management of Azerigas. After receiving a rejection letter from Azerigas, I wrote and sent an application to the office on behalf of the subscriber. There were delays, and I lost my time and nerves, but the result was encouraging. It was worth everything to see that poor Sitalchay resident’s eyes smiling with happiness when he received the positive decision of the court.”

With his successes, however, his own family has suffered.

Malik Zeynalli is the only breadwinner for his family of four. His teaching salary is 600 AZN ($350) and he drives a taxi for a few hours in the evenings to supplement his income. He doesn't get paid for what he does for villagers. On the contrary, he often spends out of his own pocket to help his neighbors.

For example, he has struggled to get permission to build a barn for his livestock although other residents of the village have been able to build one without an issue. Likewise, he has been refused a permit to build a fence around his house. In addition, the Khizi Telecommunication Office has not connected his house to the internet, claiming the antenna in the area is too weak. But his neighbors are connected. As a result, he has to use his mobile phone to work online.

“The administration of the district is annoyed with me. If they have the opportunity, they will exile me from here,” he says with a laugh. They try to hinder my life in every way, to tire me and annoy me. And I say, go ahead... I enjoy helping helpless people. I want to make a little contribution to someone else’s happiness.”

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