AZERBAIJAN: Three youth activists sentenced and four detained ahead of presidential election

Summary: The sentencing of three Azerbaijani youth activists on 15 July to 15 days administrative detention is politically motivated and follow more than a dozen arrests of other opposition activists in Azerbaijan in recent months. ARTICLE 19 condemns the continued targeting of opposition activists by the Azerbaijani authorities, in particular in the run up to the presidential election in October.

[17 July 2013] - 

“The arrest of these activists for exercising their right to freedom of expression, a fundamental right key to any democracy, demonstrates the Azerbaijani authorities’ total lack of respect for human rights and proper democratic process in the countdown to elections,” said Dr Agnes Callamard, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19.

“Society needs the opportunity learn about and participate in a healthy political debate. These arrests have a chilling effect not only on freedom of expression but on democratic development in general,” she added.

Members of the Free Youth Organisation, Ulvi Hasanli and Mejid Merjanli, and an activist with the N!DA civic movement, Kenan Qasimli, were arrested on 14 July in Baku. The following day all three were sentenced for refusing to follow police orders. Their arrests were reportedly in connection with stickers posted on the walls of the Baku metro bearing the N!DA logo and the words: “You are the source of the government / Do not fear the government / Protest against the government / Change the government”.

Reports indicated that the whereabouts of the three activists was initially unknown after they were arrested, and that they did not have immediate access to a lawyer. All three were sentenced on 15 July 2013 to 15 days administrative detention on charges of ‘failing to comply with the legal demands of police personnel’ under Article 310.1 of the Administrative Offences Law.

Another N!DA activist, Emil Baghirov, was detained on the afternoon of 14 July, but was later released without charge. Turkel Azertyurk, an opposition party (PPFA) youth committee member, and two N!DA activists, Tural Shekerli and Mohammed Gurbanov, were also briefly detained for police questioning yesterday evening after an action to promote literacy in Fountains Square, Baku. All three were released without charge.

Background Information

ARTICLE 19 believes this latest tightening of the grip on free expression by the Azerbaijani authorities is linked to the upcoming presidential election on 16 October 2013. This has manifested itself in particular through the targeting of opposition activists in recent months:

  • On 17 May 2013, Ilkin Rustemzade was charged with ‘hooliganism’ as a result of his alleged involvement in a Harlem Shake video posted on YouTube, and placed under pre-trial detention
  • On 9 May 2013, blogger Rashad Ramazanov was picked up outside the ’20 January’ metro station. Taken into police custody, he was allegedly found in possession of nine grams of heroin and is currently held in pre-trial detention
  • On 30 April, youth activists Turgut Gambar, Albulfez Gurbanli and Ilkin Rustemzade were sentenced to 10-15 days administrative imprisonment for participating in an unsanctioned memorial service on the four-year anniversary of a shooting at Azerbaijan's State Oil Academy
  • On 1 April 2013, Zaur Gurbanli blogger and activist was arrested on charges of ‘illegal possession of a firearm’, and is currently held in pre-trial detention. Gurbanli was previously arrested on 29 September 2012 and taken to the offices of N!DA, where authorities seized thousands of copies of N!DA campaign material. Initially placed under administrative detention on grounds that he had failed to cooperate with a police investigation into drug trafficking, Gurbanli was sentenced on 1 October 2012 to 15 days’ detention for ‘failing to comply with the legal demands of police personnel’
  • On 14 March, Rashad Hasanov, a youth activist with the N!DA movement, was arrested on charges of possessing illegal weapons and faces up to eight years in prison if found guilty. (He is currently being held in pre-trial detention.) Hasanov’s arrest came days after three other activists of N!DA - Shahin NovruzluBakhtiyar Guliyev and Mammad Azizov were detained on 6 March on similar charges. Investigators stated that they had found drugs and "Molotov cocktails" in their apartments, an allegation refuted by the activists’ families who claim that these items had been planted
  • Also on 15 May, a prominent critic of the regime, leader of the REAL political movement Ilgar Mammadov had his pre-trial detention extended by three months. A potential presidential candidate, Mammadov was arrested on 4 February 2013 on charges of orchestrating the mass protests that took place in the town of Ismayilli in January.

These arrests are even more concerning when taken against the backdrop of new legislation criminalising online defamation and abuse, passed by the Azerbaijani parliament on 14 May. This raft of arrests, when taken together with legislative developments, represent a clear continuation of the narrowing limited space for free expression in Azerbaijan in the lead-up to this year’s presidential election.

Opposition news outlets and bloggers, as well as journalists and activists reporting on human rights abuses and government corruption, have long been on the receiving end of this kind of treatment. The trumped up charges they face range from ‘hooliganism’ to ‘failing to comply with police demands’ and even to ‘possession of narcotics’. This last charge has occurred remarkably often with four Azerbaijani journalists – Rashad Ramazanov, Anar Bayramli, Nijat Aliyev and Hilal Mamedov – found in possession of small quantities of heroin in the last 15 months.

President Aliyev enjoys staunch support from Azerbaijan’s private and state-owned media, with opposition news outlets facing constant pressure though a constant barrage of defamation suits and fines. Squeezed out of the mainstream media and political debates, many opposition activists, particularly Azerbaijani youth, are faced with a daily struggle for political visibility. With no end to the revolving door of arrests for young activists in sight, that is a struggle that looks set to continue for dissenting minds in Azerbaijan.





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