Eight police agents in civil clothes, in a car without identification, abduct a popular video blogger. They beat him, mock him and insult him. The next day they bring him to court to fine him for disobeying and resisting the police.
“No,” I hear you say; “that’s too absurd to happen in real life.”
Yes it is absurd, but it is exactly what happened in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, to Mehman Huseynov on 9-10 January 2017.
Mehman Huseynov is a well-known Azerbaijani photojournalist and blogger who has been pivotal in raising awareness of political and social problems in Azerbaijan.
In his recent series of video reports for news and media company Sancaq, Hunt for Corrupt Officials, he documented corruption in the high echelons of Azerbaijan’s ruling establishment. He is a high-profile figure on Azerbaijani social media, with a large following on both Instagram and Facebook.
Increasingly invested in human rights work, Mehman Huseynov recently took over the chairmanship of the country’s leading independent media rights group, the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS).
Leading IRFS is a dangerous job in Baku. Emin Huseynov, IRFS’ founder and Mehman’s brother, was forced into hiding in August 2014 to ensure his protection amid a wave of repression in Azerbaijan. He was officially charged after going into hiding, and these politically motivated criminal charges forced him to leave the country in June 2015. Whilst Emin Huseynov was hiding, journalist Rasim Aliyev was appointed chairman of IRFS – he was attacked by a group of unknown individuals and died from his injuries. Now, the attacks continue and target IRFS’ new chairman, Mehman Huseynov.
The absurd, cruel and nasty nature of the abduction, detention and sentence of Mehman Huseynov is only one side of the ongoing crackdown on critical voices in Azerbaijan.
In reality, the abduction of Huseynov is a reflection of the conditions in which civil society works and of the sense of impunity of those attacking journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders in the country. This is not an isolated attack. Just like Rasim Aliyev’s murder was not insulated from the unprecedented crackdown in the country since the summer of 2014 and previously left-uninvestigated murders of journalists Rafiq Tagi and Elmar Huseynov.
All independent human rights institutions have highlighted the same: a worsening situation for human rights defenders, civil society, and individual freedoms in Azerbaijan. This climate is one in which authorities believe they can abduct, beat and sentence a human rights defender in order to silence him. Those in power think civil society is there to obey and report on what they wish, and not on the numerous problems plaguing society as Huseynov was doing.
For the Azerbaijani authorities, there were little consequences after the arrest of Intiqam Aliyev, Anar Mammadli and Rasul Jafarov, Leyla Yunus and her husband Arif Yunus, and later also of Khadija Ismayilova. Shutting down independent civil society in the country brought only verbal condemnation, but no changes in the manner in which the international community was dealing with human rights in Azerbaijan. Since, from the top to the bottom of the authorities in Azerbaijan, a sense of impunity has grown for violence against and the targeting, criminalisation, intimidation, torture and killing of journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders.
As with many others in Azerbaijan, Mehman Huseynov is released but his rights have not been fully restored. The authorities have confiscated and withheld his official documents, including his passport, since they first arrested him in 2012. This does not only restrict Mehman Huseynov’s freedom of movement and prevent him from attending international events, it also makes it impossible for him to receive medical aid in a hospital or to receive higher education. He has also been regularly interrogated by authorities since his first arrest.
Furthermore, earlier this year, young activists Bayram Mammadov and Qiyas Ibrahimov were arrested after spraypainting graffiti on a monument to former president Heydar Aliyev in Baku. They were recently sentenced to 10 years in prison on spurious drug charges.
We know with Azerbaijan that repression just follows repression if acts such as this attack against Mehman Huseynov are not met with the kind of answer they deserve. Azerbaijan’s human rights situation is indeed just as bad as it ever was in the country’s independent history, as the review in October 2016 at the United Nations Human Rights Committee showed.
With Council of Europe blocked and divided over the future of Ukraine, we need to look to the United Nations to step up and protect civil society space in Azerbaijan. At the Human Rights Council, many States have since summer 2014 raised the human rights situation in Azerbaijan. The time has now come to put Azerbaijan under the monitoring of the Council, as the authorities remain deaf to the calls of so many international voices urging Azerbaijan to “rethink [its] punitive approach to civil society.”