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Press Freedom

After the Curtain Call, a Crackdown Begins

BAKU, Jun 19 2012 (IPS) - As the attention of the world faded away from Azerbaijan after the recent Eurovision song contest, police began targeting some young activists and a journalist involved in protests here last month.

The Eurovision song contest was as much a moment of enjoyment for music lovers as it was a fierce contest between the Azerbaijani government and its opponents to highlight the ‘reality’ of a politically turbulent country; with the former presenting a respectable image to the West, and the latter struggling to expose human rights violations and government suppression of basic civil liberties.

More than ten protest rallies were organised on the eve of the contest.

Human rights defenders and activists had anticipated a post-Eurovision crackdown, when the spotlight had turned away from the country and the government would be free to punish those who had dared to educate the world about the grave situation on the ground in Azerbaijan.

On Jun. 6, the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS), a media rights watchdog, was notified by the Sabail District Police Office that a photo journalist named Mehman Huseynov, an IRFS member, had allegedly insulted police officers during a protest on May 21.

The district police office has now opened a criminal case against Huseynov under Article 221.2.2 of the Criminal Code of the Azerbaijan Republic.  If found guilty, Huseynov will face five years in prison.

Huseynov (23), said the accusation is related to his work, which for many years has entailed photographing events that depict government wrongdoings and disseminating them via social media.

Several months prior to Eurovision, Huseynov actively joined the Sing for Democracy Campaign.

“I was media coordinator within the campaign. My photos and videos were shared in international media.  Of course, they showed the reality of Azerbaijan, (which) is unfortunately not very positive. That is why I am a target now,” he told IPS.

Over 30 human rights organisations joined Sing for Democracy in an effort to pressure organisers of the contest to demand greater democracy in Azerbaijan.

The campaign called for the release of political prisoners, freedom of expression and assembly, protection of property rights and the independence of courts.

IRFS head Emin Huseynov, Mehman Huseynov’s older brother, links the accusation against the latter with his profession. “It is the start of the post-Eurovision crackdown. It is revenge against the IRFS for actively informing foreign journalists and international media on the eve of Eurovision about many harassment cases in Azerbaijan. Besides, during seven years of work, we investigated many cases of pressure on journalists. Now, they want to punish us.”

Before the song contest, Leyla Yunus, director of the Institute of Peace and Democracy, had often warned of a serious backlash after the Eurovision-fuelled tourist season died down. She believes Mehman Huseynov is the first victim of that campaign.

“Mehman’s work has been shared and discussed recently. Besides, he is working for IRFS, which is critical of the government. By arresting him they want to (blacklist) a good photo journalist and put pressure on his brother Emin.”

Various other activists were also brought into police stations this week.

Beyim Hasanli, a member of the opposition Popular Front Party’s Youth Committee was called in to the Sebayil district police station on Jun. 9.

She was asked how she got information about the May 21 protest action and why she attended it. Hasanli was also asked if she ever noticed a media representative being rude to the police.

“After that they showed me a video in which I was trying to help a woman dragged by police. There were many journalists, including Mehman, who tried to film it but police would not let them do so. It also showed Mehman (swearing) when he was not allowed to film.”

After that Hasanli was asked to write a report on what she saw on video.

A week ago, her father was called in to the Absheron district Main Police Office and asked to sign a statement promising to be responsible for his daughter’s activities.

Hasanli claims all this was done to intimidate and discourage her from being an activist.

Natig Adilov, a journalist with the opposition Azadlig newspaper and activist with the Popular Front Party, was called in to the Sabirabad police station on Jun. 13, where he was “advised” to get involved in better activities than participating in protest rallies.

“They do it to scare people so that they stop their public activity. For autocratic regimes like this, intimidation is very important to manage their (stronghold). It is also related to me being very active during Eurovision,” said Adilov.

Ehsan Zahidov, spokesman for the Ministry of Internal Affairs, said the recent slew of interrogations against activists and journalists has nothing to do with their activity during the Eurovision song contest or their political background but pertained to them violating “rules”.

“To advise people (on how to behave) is part of the job of police officers. They do not care about the political activity of citizens. Natig Adilov was just advised not to violate public order. That is it,” he told IPS.

For Arzu Abdullayeva, human rights defender and co-chair of the Helsinki Citizens Assembly, recent pressure on journalists is not limited to Eurovision activity.

“Activists have always been a threat to the Azerbaijani government. By (putting) pressure on activists, journalists, by arresting them, the government (lets potential dissidents) know that they will have the same future.”

Human rights organisations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch condemned the accusation against Huseynov.

The authorities should “drop the bogus charges against Huseynov and ensure that he can exercise his right to freedom of expression”, Human Rights Watch said in its recent report.

Amnesty International’s statement mentions that Huseynov’s arrest comes amid a worrying rise in police harassment of young activists who participated in protests around Eurovision.

According to Max Tucker, Amnesty International’s Azerbaijan campaigner, Mehman’s arrest signals the start of the widely predicted government crackdown on those they consider responsible for negative publicity during Eurovision.


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