After thousands of Azerbaijanis rallied for the freedom of imprisoned blogger Mehman Huseynov and other political prisoners on Saturday, 19 January, President Ilham Aliyev has ordered “an objective and fair investigation” into his case. The decision follows an appeal Huseynov reportedly submitted on 20 January, insisting on his innocence.
The National Council of Democratic Forces (NCDF) had called for the authorized meeting following a weekslong hunger strike of Huseynov and five other political prisoners in protest against the inhumane treatment of jailed government critics, particularly the pressing of new charges seemingly fabricated to prolong their sentences.
In their speeches, opposition leaders from the Musavat, Azerbaijan Popular Front (APFP) and Republican Alternative Party (ReAl) demanded freedom for Mehman Huseynov and other political prisoners and criticized the government for its corruption and lack of progress in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
According to officials, the two-hour demonstration at the Mahsul stadium in Baku’s Yasamal district took place without incident.
Authorities increased security measures, checking protesters for weapons before allowing them into the stadium. As is frequently the case during such events, access to the Internet was blocked to prevent live broadcast from the venue.
Even though estimates of how many people participated vary, the protest is still believed to be the largest the country has seen in years.
The police and government media claimed a small group of 2,800 people took part in the rally, but organizers thought the numbers of protesters to be as high as 25,000 people. Numbers reported by news sites and estimated on social media range from 5,000 to 14,000 people approximately.
After the end of the rally, people flooded the streets calling for the government to resign.
According to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), in an effort to minimize attendance, authorities detained dozens of activists prior to the rally, published false weather forecasts on government websites, and universities scheduled exams on the day of the rally.
Ilgar Mammadov, former political prisoner and chairperson of ReAl, who was recently released after more than five years in prison, reported being summoned to the Probation Office on the day of the rally, getting released just an hour before the start.
The demonstration was held on day 24 of Huseynov’s hunger strike, who has been refusing solid foods in protest against new charges authorities brought up against him just months before his two-year prison sentence for slander was supposed to end. He now faces three to seven more years behind bars.
In an outpour of support, more than a dozen people have joined his hunger strike, among them prominent investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova. Many of them have since stopped, including Ismayilova, who said on Saturday evening that “society is awake and their voice is louder than our hunger’s.”Three activists, among them two relatives of political prisoners, continue the hunger strike in the headquarters of the Musavat party.
Elchin Ismayilli and Ahmed Nuruzadeh, two of the four political prisoners who announced their hunger strike in a joint letter on 13 January, were transferred to different prisons.
The Azerbaijan Penitentiary Service denies the ongoing hunger strike.