The Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS) resolutely denounces an Azerbaijani court decision to sentence the IRFS chairman and popular blogger Mehman Huseynov to two years in prison and calls for his immediate and unconditional release. IRFS calls on international organisations and states to bolster accountability for press freedom abuses in Azerbaijan, and immediately apply sanctions against the Azerbaijani ruling establishment.
IRFS believes that Mehman’s conviction is nothing more than retaliation both for Mehman’s hard-hitting blogging and IRFS’ work exposing abuses against freedom of expression at the international fora. This week only, IRFS made public calls for suspension of Azerbaijan from the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) for the regime’s failure to comply with the organisation’s standards; and condemned the ruling regime for the unsolved murders of five journalists in Azerbaijan and called for the Global Magnitsky Act to be enacted on the increasingly dictatorial Azerbaijani regime.
On 27 February, Mehman shared the video that he produced in which he asks the average person on the street what they would do if they were president of a large company. “Would you appoint your wife as the Vice President?” The video has contributed to the public debate around Aliyev’s decision to appoint his wife as Vice President, in violation of both domestic laws and international standards. Three days later, in a speedy trial, a court in Baku convicted Mehman Huseynov of defamation and sentenced him to two years in prison.
“This pattern suggests that the country’s first family is behind the conviction. There is no way that he would be thrown in jail without the authorisation of Ilham and Mehriban Aliyev. This case is too high profile for the decision not to have gone through them”, IRFS CEO Emin Huseynov said.
On 9 January the police kidnapped and held Mehman Huseynov for several hours driving him around and torturing him. They covered his head with a sack to restrict his breathing and shocked him with a taser. After holding him overnight and out of contact with his family or lawyer, the authorities fined him 200 manat and released him. He then openly spoke about his torture and detention to the press and directly to the public through blogging and his work with IRFS.
The police chief launched a defamation case against Mehman Huseynov, claiming, “Nesimi police station has never tortured anyone”. This statement is provably false as the European Court of Human Rights convicted this exact police station of torture against Mehman’s own brother, freedom of expression advocate, Emin Huseynov. Mehman then characterised the first day of court as being “a joke” and “like a circus” in that there was little organisation or evidence. They had to identify Mehman using a Facebook picture because the authorities have already taken all his forms of identification.
Instead of bringing to justice those responsible for torturing and harassing Mehman, the Aliyev regime has chosen to charge him with defamation and throw the activist behind bars.
This is not the first attack on the organisation. Mehman took over as chairman of IRFS after its previous chairman, Rasim Aliyev died at a hospital after being brutally beaten by a group of assailants. The year before Rasim’s murder, authorities raided the IRFS offices and seized the property of IRFS; and forced IRFS founding chairman Emin Huseynov into hiding in the Swiss embassy where he had to stay for ten months. When finally released they stripped him of his citizenship and forced him into exile. The government has a long history of undermining and attacking IRFS.
IRFS would like to note that the country’s First Vice President Mehriban Aliyeva is also a UNESCO Good Will Ambassador. The fact, that a UN organisation, mandated by UN member states to promote freedom of expression, continues to have Mehriban Aliyeva—who, along with her husband, the President of Azerbaijan, are behind some of the most outrageous violations of freedom of expression in Azerbaijan – as its Good Will Ambassador is nothing more than an assault on the very notion of press freedom. To this end, IRFS reiterates its calls for UNESCO to dismiss Mehriban Aliyeva as one of its Goodwill Ambassadors immediately.
Furthermore, IRFS calls upon the Council of Europe, the OSCE and the United Nations, of which Azerbaijan is a member, to put pressure on the Azerbaijani authorities, and urge them to comply unconditionally with their human rights obligations.
IRFS also calls on international donors, including the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, European Investment Bank, and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, to refrain from supporting the initiatives of the ruling regime until the government can provide explicit guarantees that it will end its crackdown on the civil society along with a clear plan for urgent radical reform.