Blogger on Hunger Strike in Azerbaijan

Mehman Huseynov is a blogger and activist who worked to expose uncomfortable truths in Azerbaijan such as corruption and police brutality. He was imprisoned almost two years ago for bogus charges of defamation. As his jail time comes to an end, the Azerbaijani police have come up with new charges to extend his sentence by 5 – 7 years. Huseynov has now been on hunger strike for over 10 days in protest.

Before his arrest, Huseynov ran a popular Facebook page that discussed social issues in Azerbaijan and held officials to account. With over 300,000 followers, the page publicized the luxurious lifestyles and new-builds of officials whilst highlighting social problems. He launched a campaign called the ‘Hunt for Corrupt Officials’ shortly before his arrest.

Huseynov was detained 9 January 2017 after publishing videos revealing how ministers were building opulent palaces. He told the judge the following day that police had beaten him, put a plastic bag over his head, and stun-gunned him. Despite a judge ordering an investigation into his treatment, he was prosecuted for ‘slander’ of the same police station he claimed mistreated him. He has been in prison since 3 March 2017.

The new charges leveled against Huseynov are vague and undocumented. He is accused by authorities of violently attacking a prison officer. Many believe the real purpose of these allegations are to silence him so he will not continue to expose police brutality and corruption.

Huseynov’s confinement is not unique in Azerbaijan. The country’s government repeatedly targeted figures such as Huseynov who are young, popular and politicized in a multi-year crackdown on civil society, media, and political opposition.

Huseynov is gaining more and more attention both in Azerbaijan and internationally. The opposition party Musavat announced that they will hold a political rally in support of Mehman and other political prisoners on 12 January. Moreover, various international media freedom and human rights organizations such as Amnesty International have spoken up in support of the #FreeMehman campaign.

Despite international criticism of the Azerbaijani government regarding their treatment of the free press, the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev has downplayed Huseynov’s case. He says does not consider Huseynov to be a journalist. “Well-known circles are trying to glorify and make individuals with low-intelligence… into the leaders of public opinion.” He believes Azerbaijan is pursuing an independent policy. “This policy annoys those who are trying to make such individuals as Huseynov the leader of public opinion and glorifying them: they are looking for vessels,” he said.

Many politicians insist that Huseynov had a fair trial on correct charges. “He violated the law and therefore appeared before the court,” said Azerbaijani MP Hikmat Babaoglu. “Pretending to be defenders of rights and democracy, they actually show hostility towards Azerbaijan and seek to discredit its international authority.”

Despite the government’s attempt to discredit Huseynov, his case clearly raises questions regarding the quality of media freedom in Azerbaijan. Democracies flourish when supported by an independent judiciary, respect for the rule of law, a vibrant civil society, pluralism, democratic electoral processes, a free media, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. The imprisonment of Huseynov could be seen to have broken many of these important elements of democracy.

Huseynov is still waiting to hear if his prison term will be extended as his hunger strike continues into its third week.

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.

By Amy Jones

10 January 2019 16:40