Azerbaijan seems to be truly contending for the title of one of most repressive governments in post-Soviet space. It has an authoritarian government with an abysmal human rights record, including no elections deemed free and fair, no right to protest, heavily controlled media, the complete lack of political freedom and the imprisonment of civil society activists, and regular reports of systematic torture in prison. Over a hundred people are behind bars for no other reason than their peaceful human rights and political work. This is a long list, to be sure, though the full accounting of this government’s crimes against its own people is far greater. In recent years, the government’s growing suppression of criticism has escalated into a full-blown assault.
Take the grim story of the country’s popular blogger Mehman Huseynov. The 27-year-old Huseynov is known for his hard-hitting exposés of corruption by senior Azerbaijani officials. According to Human rights Watch, a group of plain-clothes officers had attacked Huseynov in January 2017, “blindfolded and gagged him with towels, forced a bag over his head and took him to the police station, where police used an electroshock weapon on his groin, and punched him, bloodying his nose”. The next day, officers took him before a court that found him guilty of disobeying police orders and fined him. While authorities refused to conduct a credible investigation into Huseynov’s torture allegations, the district police chief brought a criminal lawsuit against him for defamation. In March 2017, a Baku court sentenced him to two years in prison on charges of defaming the police station, after Huseynov made a statement describing the torture he had suffered at that police department.
Huseynov’s sentence was to expire in early March 2019. The arbitrary extension of his prison term just two months’ before his scheduled release date for allegedly “committing violence against the prison guard,” came to light in late December 2018, on the New Year eve. Huseynov is now facing the possibility of an additional seven-year sentence, as he is accused of an absurd charge of attacking a prison guard in an attempt to avoid a routine check on 26 December.
The government has a malicious intention. It wants Huseynov to remain in jail longer. Of course, no one should have been fooled by such patently absurd charges. After all, it was no real surprise that the Azerbaijani government would resort to such nasty tactics. Its use of criminal prosecution as a tool for political retaliation is a well-documented problem.
The practice of arbitrarily extending the sentences of people imprisoned on political charges is nothing new in authoritarian Azerbaijan. The cruel action is often taken just weeks or a few months before the person is to be released, on bogus grounds and may result in years of additional imprisonment.
Huseynov is reportedly in a hunger strike in protest against the trumped-up charge. Having been denied contact with his lawyer and family members, place him at grave risk. The incommunicado detention of Huseynov makes his friends and rights activists profoundly concerned for his safety and well-being. According to his father, who spoke him once, Huseynov refused to stop the hunger strike when the father asked him to do so. Huseynov said he would not stop until his demands are met, even if it was going to cost his life. He really put his life on the line.
Huseynov has been targeted by the government for years. He has been under a travel ban since 2012 and has been repeatedly harassed by the police. In early August, he was temporarily released from prison to attend his mother’s funeral.
Huseynov is far from the only journalist in Azerbaijan to be targeted for their critical work and seeking justice for police abuse, a systematic and well-documented problem in Azerbaijan. His case is emblematic of the government’s vicious crackdown against critics, jailing dozens of human rights defenders, political activists, and journalists.
This week, when Huseynov’s friends went to the streets to publicly demand Huseynov’s release, police used violence to disperse and detain some of them. Some activists said they will also call on foreign embassies in capital Baku to visit Huseynov the prison as a way of pressuring the government. Activist also demand that the Council of Europe’s rapporteur on the issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan, Thorhildur Sunna Aevarsdottir, should visit and prepare the report on the longstanding concern of Azerbaijan’s practice of criminally prosecuting its critics. Though, many activists argue that Azerbaijani authorities will bring unprecedented lengths to obstruct the rapporteur’s work, refusing her access to the country or compelling her to produce a report without being able to visit the country.
While Azerbaijan’s human rights crisis is expanding by the day, the response of European Union, Council of Europe and other international partners have fallen seriously short. It sends a signal that these issues are not important and ignores those, like Huseynov, struggling to promote human rights in Azerbaijan. True, oil-rich Azerbaijan is a tough negotiating partner. But blame also lies with the EU’s and other international partners’ approach as they often use low-level, opaque human-rights ‘dialogues’ to raise concerns. For meaningful results in securing the release of Huseynov and many others wrongfully remaining behind bars more concrete pressure is needed, such as the visa bans and asset freezes on Azerbaijani officials implicated in gross abuses.