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Political prisoners and mass repression in Azerbaijan

Political exile ZAMIRA ABBASOVA relays the case of Mehman Huseynov, an unjustly imprisoned journalist who is now on hunger strike - a strike that has spread across her embattled homeland

AZERBAIJANI civil society has been under attack by the government since 2012. International organisations were forced to leave the country (US Peace Corps, World Vision, Save the Children), bank accounts frozen, local NGOs prosecuted, activists, journalists, lawyers, and human rights defenders have been facing gruesome pressure, harassment and arrests.

Civil society has been under constant attack from national security agencies. It is a closed-off country whose youth are fleeing. Those who could not bear it have left their home to seek asylum in other countries. Many who had willpower to fight back like Mehman Huseynov, journalist and blogger, have ended up being jailed. He was arrested on March 3, 2017 and sentenced to two years. On December 26, 2018, close to his release, the government of Azerbaijan threw up a new charge – sparking several hunger strikes and civil unrest throughout the whole country.

To protest against the government’s bogus charges trumped up ahead of his release on March 3, Mehman has gone on hunger strike. He stated: “I will continue my struggle until the charges are dropped. Struggle requires sacrifice. The situation has come to a point that I have to sacrifice my life. I must avoid other things with my death.”

On 12th day of his hunger strike, his lawyer Shahla Humbatova announced that Mehman was currently on a dairy diet followed by acute stomach problems. He is now on his 27th day of hunger strike.

Since December 26 many activists, former and current political prisoners have been following his path.

According to Meydan TV, Qiyas Ibrahim, Orkhan Bakhishli, Bayram Mammadov, Ahsan Nuruzadeh, Ilkin Rustamzadeh and Elchin Ismayilli have announced hunger strikes from their prison cells. They stated: “If we await our fate like sacrificial lambs, tomorrow they will ‘find’ drugs, weapons etc under our pillows, or we will ‘beat someone’.”

Tofig Yagublu, Senuber Heydarova, Shamil Nasirov, Natig Israphilli, and Namig Abdullayev are also continuing their hunger strike at the Musavat Party headquarters.

On January 14, one more prominent investigative journalist of Azerbaijan, Khadija Ismayil has announced that she too will go on a hunger strike with three demands from the government of Azerbaijan:

1)    To drop charges against five political prisoners who were about to end their prison terms
2)    To release all journalists, bloggers, and freedom of expression activists from prison
3)    To start “zero political prisoner’s policy,” including review of all political prisoners’ cases with the independent human rights activists’ groups

On January 3 a group of women also initiated a protest against Mehman Huseynov’s charges demanding his immediate release. Then on January 6 several youth groups attempted to protest in front of Court of Appeal and were faced with police brutality, with several detained. On January 10 another group in the Salyan region organised a small protest against Huseynov’s charges, as well as asking the government to release other political prisoners.

These protests have encouraged thousands of citizens to bombard President Ilham Aliyev and his daughter’s twitter accounts demanding the release of Mehman and other illegally held political prisoners.

As a reaction against these criticisms, government-backed trolls have shared a statement “on behalf of Mehman Huseynov” that said that he has stopped his strike and is eating well. His lawyer Shahla Humbatova has responded to this statement:

“I read the request they have shared on media as well. Mehman has not told me anything about this request. This is not the first case. Earlier, they shared that Mehman had signed a document to stop the hunger strike and when I asked him about it, Mehman rejected this and said he had not signed any document. Mehman is all right, he continues his strike and uses only dairy to maintain himself. He is not planning to eat anything until he gets released as deserved on March 3.”

International organisations like PEN,  Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Frontline Defenders, IFEX, RFRL, OCCRP, Human Rights House, the Committee to Protect Journalists and others have now made calls for his release.

Dunya Miyatovic, The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, called the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Mahmud Mammad-Guliyev, in order to discuss the case. She “told the deputy minister that the authorities should drop the charges initiated against Mr Huseynov on December 26 because they lack credibility. I also underscored that the authorities are under the obligation to provide the necessary medical care to Mr Huseynov whose conditions are extremely worrying. For this reason, he should be transferred to a civil hospital where he can receive the necessary medical care. I hope that the authorities of Azerbaijan will abide by their human rights obligations.”

Additionally, Turan.az stated that the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe representative on freedom of the media Harlem Desir sent a letter to Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov expressing his serious concern about the situation, and the chair of the media NGO Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety had called on the authorities to drop the charges.

These international statements do not cease to appear in foreign media. On January 11 a coalition of 41 organisations published a statements against the government of Azerbaijan, demanding Mehman and other political prisoners’ release.

Meydan TV has were informed by the families of Bayram Mammadov and Ilkin Rustamzada that the Internal Security Service had been threatening them to end their hunger strike or they would be attacked in prison. None of these prisoners were provided with medical care for the duration of the hunger strike.

Clearly the European Parliament’s resolution which passed on January 17 with an overwhelming majority (out of 597 MEPs, 533 were in favor, 36 abstained, and 28 rejected it) demanding Mehman’s release, as well as the 25,000 people who came onto the streets on January 19 in Baku to protest, have angered the government.

We, the members of civil society are concerned. We fear for everyone’s life who raises their voice. We fear that they will be unjustly investigated, prosecuted, imprisoned and even killed. Sadly, Britain is silent.

Britain has repeatedly closed its eyes to violations of human rights and freedom of speech in Azerbaijan. One of the reasons may be the close economic ties to Azerbaijan: on January 10 Bloomberg mentioned that a major British oil company intends to drill six new exploration wells in the country by 2020. As long as BP is in Azerbaijan, I guess we should not expect much of an interest from the British state – but we cannot wait until Azerbaijan is shattered to the ground. Progressive voices must take up the call for justice ourselves.

Zamira Abassanova is an exiled Azerbaijani peace activist and podcaster.

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