16 March 2011

Social networking call to protest; activists detained

Opposition protesters in Baku on 12 March
Opposition protesters in Baku on 12 March
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Several hundred Azerbaijani protesters took to the streets in the capital, Baku, last week, determined to demand their rights after watching uprisings in the Middle East. They called for the resignation of President Ilham Aliyev. The Institute for Reporters Freedom and Safety (IRFS) and other IFEX members report that authorities arrested activists who urged fellow citizens to protest government policies and corruption, detained numerous demonstrators and evicted several non-governmental organisations from their offices.

In recent weeks, authorities arrested at least five social media and political opposition activists on fabricated charges of drug possession, hooliganism and draft evasion - hoping to quash rallies, reports Human Rights Watch. Activists had used Facebook and other social media to call for youth protests on 11 March and for a demonstration by opposition parties on 12 March.

In a joint action, IFEX members of the International Partnership Group for Azerbaijan - ARTICLE 19, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Freedom House and Index on Censorship - called on authorities to release five detained youth activists.

Blogger and youth activist Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, 29, and opposition Popular Front Party Youth Committee member Dayanat Babayev, 21, were among those arrested days before the protests. Hajiyev used social media to promote the protests and, as a former parliamentary candidate in 2010, had made speeches critical of authorities. He was remanded to one month in pre-trial detention and reported being severely beaten and threatened with rape by police. Babayev is an active Facebook and social network user who was very critical of the government in his postings but called for peaceful protests. He was sentenced to 10 days in detention.

At least 32 people were arrested as they walked through public parks or near the local university or even sat down in cafés, on their way to protests on 11 March. On 12 March the political opposition tried to hold a rally but hundreds of police descended on the site, assaulting and detaining demonstrators. Uniformed and plainclothes police grabbed protesters and shoved them into buses, say news reports. Over the two-day period, Baku police rounded up 100 people; most were released after a few hours.

Most of those detained were denied access to lawyers of their choosing, and all were held on fabricated criminal and administrative charges. On 14 March, Azerbaijani courts sentenced at least 30 demonstrators to between five and eight days in prison in late-night closed trials. Members of IRFS have also been detained and questioned.

As part of this ongoing effort to silence critics, on 10 March, the Justice Ministry closed the Azerbaijan Human Rights House (AHRH), a non-governmental organisation that assisted local groups with international human rights advocacy for Azerbaijan. In January, the group made a visit to Strasbourg to speak about Azerbaijan's worsening human rights situation at the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly.

In the city of Ganja, three other non-governmental organisations were ordered by officials and police employees to leave their offices on 4 March: regional office of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Training Center, Demos Public Union and Ganja Regional Information Center. The Ganja-based NGOs are known for "exposing and lobbying against negative social/political conditions, and encouraging people to express their opinions freely," says IRFS.

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