The release last Friday of nine activists in Azerbaijan jailed since last spring for organising peaceful protests against the government should not distract international attention from an ongoing crackdown on free expression in the country, Amnesty International has warned.
“While we welcome the long overdue release of these nine protesters, they should never have been behind bars in the first place,” said John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia Director at Amnesty International.
The release came ahead of today’s vote on a report on political prisoners in Azerbaijan by the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights in Strasbourg. The report prepared by Christopher Strasser, a German MP denied entry to the country, lists around 100 alleged political prisoners who should be released immediately or given a fair trial. The report was adopted by a narrow majority.
“Amnesty International very much welcomes the adoption of Strasser’s report and urges the Azeri authorities to cooperate with the Parliamentary Assembly in the resolving this longstanding issue” said Dalhuisen.
The nine activists recognised as Prisoners of Conscience by Amnesty International released Friday night are Arif Hajili, Tural Abbasli, Rufat Hajibaili, Ahad Mammadli, Mahammad Majidli, Zulfugar Eyvazov, Sahib Karimov, Ulvi Guliyev and Babek Hasanov.
In an act presumably intended to stop his campaigning activity, Tural Abbasli, the leader of the youth wing of the opposition Musavat Party, has been summoned to begin military service in July.
The day before President Ilham Aliyev signed a decree ordering the release of the nine, Hilal Mamedov, the editor of a minority language newspaper, was arrested on spurious drugs charges.
The arrest followed Mamedov’s posting on Youtube of an Azerbaijani rap battle entitled ’Who are you, come on, off you go’ which became a viral hit and was subsequently adapted by opposition campaigners in Russia to attack President Putin.
Local rights activists suspect he was arrested partly to prevent greater media interest in the rights of the Talysh minority he campaigns to protect following the video’s publication.
He was detained by police without explanation, taken to a police station and searched, where officers claim to have found a package containing 5 grams of heroin on him. They claim to have found a further 20 grams in his home.
According to Mamedov’s lawyer, the police officers showed him the package but not the contents He insisted that all the drugs were planted.
When the lawyer tried to visit Mamedov in custody, he was refused access until the following day.
He told Amnesty International that Mamedov had been tortured while in police custody and supplied photo evidence of bruising on his feet and ankles.
On 22 June a Baku court ordered him to spend three months in pre-trial detention on charges of possessing large quantities of drugs. If convicted, he faces up to 12 years in prison.
Mamedov’s arrest is just the latest in a spate of charges brought against journalists, human rights defenders and political activists.
Amnesty International has called on the Azerbaijani authorities to drop or overturn trumped up charges brought against journalists Anar Bayramli and Ramin Bayramov, human rights defenders Mehman Huseynov, Ogtay Gulaliyev, Vidadi İsgandarov and Taleh Khasmammadov, and political activist Shahin Hasanli.
“For too long the Azerbaijani government has been allowed to persecute its critics unchastised. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe must continue to condemn the clampdown of freedom of speech and assembly in Azerbaijan in the strongest terms,” said Dalhuisen.