The old Soviet court system has been essentially retained, consisting of district courts and municipal courts of first instance and a Supreme Court which usually performs the function of appellate review. However, the Supreme Court also performs the function of court of first instance for some serious cases. District courts consist of one judge and two lay assessors and hear criminal, civil, and juvenile cases. Criminal defendants have the right to an attorney and to appointed counsel, the right to be present at trial, to confront witnesses, and to a public trial.
The 1995 Constitution provides for public trials in most cases, the presumption of innocence in criminal cases, and a defendant's right to legal counsel. Both defendants and prosecutors have the right of appeal. In practice, however, the courts are politically oriented, seeming to overlook the government's human rights violations. In July 1993, Aliyev ousted the Supreme Court chief justice because of alleged political loyalties to the opposition. The president directly appoints lower level judges. The president also appoints the Constitutional Court and Supreme Court judges with confirmation by the legislature.
Prosecutors (procurators) are appointed by the president with confirmation by the legislature. The minister of justice organizes prosecutors into offices at the district, municipal, and republic levels. The constitution provides equal status for prosecutors and defense attorneys before the courts, but in practice the arrest and investigatory powers of the prosecutors have dominant influence before the courts. Judges will often remand a case for further prosecutory investigation rather than render an innocent verdict. Investigations often rely on obtaining confessions rather than on gathering evidence.
According to the US State Department's Report on Human Rights Practices for 2001 and human rights organizations, the Azerbaijan government's human rights record is poor, although some public policy debate is allowed and human rights organizations operate. The government restricts freedom of assembly, religion, and association. Numerous cases of arbitrary arrest, beatings (some resulting in deaths), unwarranted searches and seizures, and other human rights abuses were reported. Political oppositionists are harassed and arrested, and there are dozens of political prisoners in Azerbaijan, according to the US State Department. There is a moratorium on carrying out death sentences, but prisoners sentenced to death are subject to harsh treatment. The conflict between NK Armenians and Azerbaijans has contributed to widespread human rights violations by both sides. Some opposition newspapers are allowed to exist. In the run-up to the October 1998 presidential race, the Aliyev government ordered an end to censorship as a gesture to encourage opposition participation, but cracked down again after the election. Ethnic Lezgins and Talysh have complained of human rights abuses such as restricted educational opportunities in their native languages.