A chance for a better life: restoring justice for people with disabilities in Azerbaijan
January 25, 2024

A chance for a better life: restoring justice for people with disabilities in Azerbaijan

Official records report over half a million people with disabilities living in Azerbaijan. However, the real figures are much higher. Often, people who are eligible for a disability pension face an unjust rejection or termination of their disability status. Finding a job is also a major challenge. The EU-funded project ‘Protecting human rights of vulnerable groups in Azerbaijan’, implemented by the OHCHR (the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights), provided a sub-grant to the ‘Law and Development’ Public Association (LDPA), which has stepped in to make a change. In just 11 months, it has provided free legal consultation and legal aid to over 500 people with vulnerable backgrounds, giving them a chance for a better life.

Learning to live anew

Intiqam Akbarov, 32, is a war veteran. He started his military career in 2017 as a combat engineer clearing mines. With the outbreak of the Second Karabakh War in September 2020, Intiqam was sent to the front line to clear mines and explosives to ensure a safe passage for the troops. On 16 November he was caught in two explosions and was seriously injured. He lost his left leg and his right arm, suffered a brain injury, damage to his ears and his right eye.

After a long time in military hospitals, Intiqam returned home. “When the war ended, I was in such a state that the last thing I could think of was getting money for my disability,” he recalls. “I wasn’t even thinking about disability. It was Hafiz Hasanov, a lawyer from ‘Law and Development’, who explained to me and other veterans about the law on disability and about our right to social benefits.” With 80% mobility loss, Intiqam was entitled to claim first degree disability. However, the government offices granted to him only second degree. The lawyer requested an impartial assessment of Intiqam‘s medical documentation. Luckily, the case was solved without going to court.

In a second step, the LDPA helped Intiqam with social housing and a car to which he was entitled. “Hafiz explained in every detail which documents we needed, according to which law we were entitled to benefits, and guided us on the state agencies to address,” says Intiqam. “He accompanied us from place to place, carrying our wheelchairs; he spoke for us when he saw that we were not able to handle legal discussions.” The Association assisted many veterans like Intiqam in recognition of their disability status, improving their financial and social conditions and providing required medical treatment.

“Thanks to the lawyer’s help, I managed to return to a normal life,” concludes Intiqam. “I was able to continue my treatment, I received quality prostheses for my arm and my leg. I have a pension and can support my family. And I’m not going to watch my life slipping away. I will overcome any obstacle.”

Losing a job but never losing heart

Samira Amirova, 55, is almost blind but she has strong sensitive hands. Samira is a certified masseuse, a graduate of a government programme supporting visually impaired adults in developing a career in massage therapy. Until 2019, she worked in a boarding house for people with disabilities at the State Medical and Social Expertise and Rehabilitation Agency in Shagan, near Baku.

“When the pandemic started in 2020, my whole life and career turned upside down” says Samira. “The Agency terminated my contract without prior notice, leaving me no means to survive. I loved my job as a massage therapist. l suddenly felt helpless and miserable. Work is everything to me,” she says.

The lawyers she consulted at the time considered her case lost as too much time had passed since her dismissal. But Samira didn’t lose heart. Via the Mediation Centre (a mandatory, pre-court dispute resolution mechanism) she learned about the ‘Law and Development’ Public Association and its lawyer Hafiz Hasanov. He proved that Samira’s dismissal was illegal, and in 2022 she won her case.

Samira recalls: “When the Court of Appeal Judge saw my former employer appeal the decision of the local court, he said: ‘Shame on you! How could you deprive a person with disability of her only job?’”

After a long legal battle, the Agency offered Samira a new contract, this time as a social agent at the Children’s Rehabilitation Centre, a clinic for children with challenges in physical or mental development. However, Samira hopes to get back to massage therapy: a position in a new rehabilitation centre has been already offered to her when it opens.

A helping hand for those who need it most

Samira and Intiqam are just two out of 548 people who have received free legal support from the LDPA as part of the project ‘Support to the legal protection of persons with disabilities’ funded by the European Union through the OHCHR. The project is part of the larger action titled ‘Protecting human rights of vulnerable groups in Azerbaijan’ implemented by the OHCHR in Baku, with 95% of financial support from the EU and the remaining 5% from OHCHR’s own contributions. Since the LDPA’s foundation in 2005, the Association has implemented over 50 projects related to legal awareness, legal aid and consultations, support to civil society and civic activism, making a valuable contribution to the democratisation process.

“Since two-thirds of our legal practice is in the field of legal aid, we have accumulated considerable data,”  says Hafiz Hasanov, a lawyer and founding member of the Association. “Our findings show that people from vulnerable backgrounds, especially persons with health impairments, have the strongest demand for legal aid.” Particularly vulnerable are people with disabilities in rural areas. According to the lawyer, they have little knowledge about their rights and protection mechanisms, have reduced mobility to travel to the court or government offices, and often simply cannot afford high fees for legal services.

Official statistics estimate around 500,000 people with disabilities living in Azerbaijan (as of June 2023). In practice, the figure is considerably higher. “There are many cases of revocation of disability status. Our analysis shows that too often people eligible for a disability pension were unfairly, unjustifiably and illegally rejected or had their benefits terminated,” says Hasanov. “The project gave us the opportunity to address this problem.”

The project suggested a three-fold approach to the problem. First, the LDPA opened a project office in Baku where Association lawyers provided free legal aid and assistance to people with disabilities. “We identified four target areas – Barda, Aghjabadi, Lankaran and Quba,” says Hasanov, adding: “Barda and Aghjabadi were the closest to the line of contact during the Nagorno-Karabakh War. We chose them because we targeted people with disabilities affected by the war. The other two regions – up north and down south – were selected to bring a broader picture on disability.”

The lawyers went on field missions to the four regions to hold legal aid sessions and on-the-spot consultations. Some cases were transferred to the capital to handle. The project created a Facebook page, ‘Life with no impediment’, to offer online legal consultations, especially to people with reduced mobility.

With the aim of raising awareness, the Association also published a booklet ‘Your rights’. Written in plain language, it guides through the essential steps in protecting the rights of people with disabilities during administrative and court proceedings. “In the regions, there are NGOs that work with vulnerable groups, and they need more guidance on recent policies on disability benefits. So, we felt there was a strong need for these booklets among rural NGOs,” says the lawyer.

Finally, the project developed a package of recommendations to government agencies and ministries on the improvement of the current national legislation. These proposals aim to align it with international good practices, in line with Azerbaijan’s commitments to implement the provisions of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The recommendations are built on the problems identified during the project’s legal practice, and mainly touch on the revision of procedures for granting disability status, employment rights and job opportunities for the disabled, social protection and welfare benefits, as well as legal protection of the rights of people with disabilities. Even after the project’s end, the Association keeps advocating for reforms, while continuing to provide legal consultations.

“It was a great experience to be able to follow individual cases from the beginning to the end in one project,” says Hasanov, concluding: “The project gave us the opportunity to strengthen cooperation with regional CSOs and build the ground for institutionalising the practice of pro bono legal aid at all levels. But the most rewarding thing was the emotional satisfaction we saw in the eyes of people whose rights we were able to restore using the only tool we had – the power of law.”

Author: Volha Prokharava


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