MEHMAN HUSEYNOV is a blogger, an activist for a free press and a journalist who has exposed uncomfortable truths about the rulers of Azerbaijan, including official corruption and police brutality. For almost two years, he has been imprisoned on bogus charges. As the end of his term approaches, the Azerbaijani police state has cooked up new charges to keep him in jail five to seven more years. Mr. Huseynov has gone on a hunger strike to protest. He must be freed and this travesty ended.
Behind the new persecution lies the grinding reality of Azeribaijan’s persecution of dissidents and journalists under the despot Ilham Aliyev. According to human rights groups, Mr. Aliyev’s jails hold 150 political prisoners, including 10 journalists. The release of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova in 2016 was not the end of this danger for those who speak the truth to power in Azerbaijan. Lately, Ms. Ismayilova has come under renewed harassment as well.
Mr. Huseynov used Facebook and YouTube effectively to hold Azerbaijan’s rulers to account. Among his probing and revelatory reports, in late 2016 he posted videos showing that while ordinary Azerbaijanis were hurting economically, government ministers were building themselves opulent palaces. He was detainedJan. 9, 2017, and the next day told a judge that police had beaten him in the station, put a plastic bag over his head and used a stun gun, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Ms. Ismayilova said his face was bruised and his shirt was covered in blood when he was released from the courthouse that day. Instead of an investigation into his treatment, which a judge ordered, Mr. Huseynov was prosecuted for “defamation” of the same police station that had tormented him. He was sentenced to two years in prison. He has been there since March 3, 2017.
Now the Azeri authorities have leveled new charges, claiming that Huseynov violently attacked a prison official. These allegations are vague, undocumented and probably as weighty as the first. The real purpose is to silence Mr. Huseynov so he won’t expose the lavish villas of the Azerbaijani ministers or testify against the brutality of the police. Mr. Huseynov went on hunger strike without food or water, and his health is deteriorating.
Mr. Aliyev must think no one will bother to call out his brutish behavior. An experienced career Foreign Service officer, Earle D. Litzenberger, has just been confirmed as U.S. ambassador. He declared in his confirmation hearing that “democracies thrive only when bolstered by an independent judiciary, respect for the rule of law, a free media, a vibrant civil society, pluralism, democratic electoral processes, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.” As a first act in his new position, the ambassador should read this list out loud to Mr. Aliyev and insist that Mr. Huseynov be freed.
Senator Marco Rubio Calls for Immediate Release of Mehman Huseynov
US Senator Marco Rubio called on official Baku to immediately release blogger Mehman Huseynov.
“Azerbaijani blogger Mehman Huseynov remains imprisoned on a trumped-up charge. Now he is in a critical situation due to a hunger strike. The government of Azerbaijan should release him immediately,” the senator wrote in his blog on Twitter.
Recall that Huseynov continues his hunger strike for the 10th day in connection with a new case brought against him about alleged resistance to the warden in the prison, where he is serving a two-year term on defamation charges against the police
Political émigré who returned home to visit critically ill father arrested on fraudulent drug-related charges
Azad Hasanov, Musavat party member and political exile living in Lithuania, has been arrested during a short return to his home country and charged with drug trafficking.
According to his lawyer, Osman Kazimov, the Khatai District Court sentenced him to four months in detention on drug-related charges. Under Article 234.4.3 (illegal manufacturing, purchase, storage, transportation, transfer or selling of sale of drugs), Hasanov faces between five and twelve years in prison.
On 11 October, Musavat deputy chairman Sakhavat Soltanli reported that Hasanov had disappeared and was likely arrested. He has been a member of the Surakhany Musavat branch since 2003 and had relocated to Lithuania in 2014, where he was granted political asylum.
He returned to Baku on 10 October, upon learning that his seriously ill father was about to die.
According to his spouse, Tarana Hasanova, he did not have any problems flying into Baku airport: “His father has been seriously ill and is about to die. He arrived on 10 October during the night. He did not have any problems crossing the border and stayed with his father until noon. He later went to the Mosque to pray. That’s where people in civilian clothes stopped him and forced him into a car. When his brother tried to help him, they pushed him aside and told him they are from the police.”
Hasanov’s fate recalls the case of lawyer Emin Aslan who was forced into a car by people in civilian clothes a few days after returning from his studies in the US. He later was found to be held at the Office for Combating Organized Crime, and spent 30 days in detention for failing to obey a police officer’s orders.
Azerbaijani MP calls for tighter control of Internet
On 1 October, an Azerbaijani parliamentarian called for tighter control over the Internet, particularly social media sites.
Zahid Oruc, who has been in office since 2001 and ran as a self-nominated, independent candidate in the 2013 and 2018 presidential elections, demanded counteraction against anti-Azerbaijan activities on social media. Due to their increasing popularity, overtaking traditional media including television, social media sites like YouTube are a particular threat, he argued.
He suggested that all Azerbaijani government agencies should set up accounts on social media to disseminate their own propaganda, and that the current anti-terrorism legislation should be reviewed to include ‘those abroad who spew poison against Azerbaijan’.
In his words, the weapon of the 21st century is no longer the atomic bomb, but information.
The idea of tightening control over social media sites and the Internet in general is regularly brought forward by MPs, and websites that authorities deem ‘undesirable’ are blocked.
In December 2017, the parliament made new amendments to the Code of Administrative Offenses to fine individuals and legal entities for circulating banned information with 500 – 2,000 manats.
A report released by the international human rights organisation Freedom House about the state of internet freedom around the world suggests that the accounts of Azerbaijani social media users are likely to be monitored, including via hacking and digital attacks. Experts have traced IP addresses involved in DDos attacks on journalists and activists back to government institutions.
Azerbaijani authorities have long been criticized for censorship and restricting internet freedom. Officials deny all accusations and argue that internet freedom is provided.