Youth organizations in Azerbaijan are linking the recent arrest of a 20-year-old activist who called for a “Day of Rage” in Baku to the government’s apparent concern about political fallout from events in Egypt. Azerbaijani police deny that the arrest had any political connection.
A relative newcomer to political activism, Jabbar Savalanly, a member of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan’s youth organization, was arrested in the city of Sumgayit, about 20 miles west of Baku, on February 5. He was charged with possession of 0.7 grams of marijuana. The Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (PFPA) and other opposition parties, youth organizations and human rights activists contend that the drugs were planted on Savalanly by police.
Savalanly first gained visibility on January 20, the 21st anniversary of the brutal Soviet crackdown on pro-independence protesters in Baku, when a group of Popular Front Party activists clashed with police over an attempted rally to commemorate victims of the crackdown.
An active user of the Facebook social networking website who did not hide his disdain for President Ilham Aliyev, Savalanly was known for his calls for taking a confrontational approach toward the government. His last post before his arrest called for supporters to gather for a “Day of Rage” – a term used to describe recent mass protests in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen -- in Baku’s Azadliq Square.
Ministry of Internal Affairs spokesperson Orkhan Mansurzade dismissed the notion that the arrest was politically motivated. “The person has admitted that he possessed drugs. Nobody cared about his political affiliation,” Mansurzade said in an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Azeri service.
Apparently inspired by developments in the Middle East, opposition youth groups have been increasing their calls for demonstrations. Abulfaz Gurbanly, head of the PFPA’s youth organization, argues that the Azerbaijani government wants to arrest younger activists, such as Savalanly, to frighten young people from publicly expressing their frustrations.
The government has shown it is taking the upheaval in Egypt and Tunisia very seriously, implementing an anti-corruption campaign and adopting other measures designed to show that officials are responsive to civic concerns.
Opposition activists underline that police pressure on youth activists is nothing new. A number of opposition youth activists have been expelled from universities, and constantly face physical and moral pressure from the government, Gurbanly asserted. He described Savalanly as a “bright youth, intellectual and very active, like those who called for change in Egypt.”
According to Gurbanly, police frequently target opposition sympathizers outside Baku since it makes organizing their legal defense more difficult than for residents of the capital. Similar drug charges were brought against two other PFPA youth activists in the regional center of Sabirabad in 2009, he added.
Initially, the police denied Savalanly access to an attorney, something that Mansurzade, the Interior Ministry representative, attributed to the “urgent” nature of the operation. Savalanly’s lawyer, Asabali Mustafayev, now says that his client gave his testimony under physical and moral pressure by police. “He was told his destiny had been written in the upper echelons [of power],” Mustafayev claimed. “He rejected his previous testimony when he gave evidence in my presence.”
Savalanly has been sentenced by a Sumgayit court to spend two months in prison during a pre-trial investigation period, and will be tested for drug use. In response, the young activist already has appealed to newly arrived US Ambassador Matthew Bryza to raise his case with President Aliyev, according to a group of non-partisan youth activists and youth organizations who are calling for Savalanly’s release.
One Facebook supporter, though, offered a piece of more practical advice: “I wish you would sew up your pockets before going out [so that nothing can be planted in them].”
Khadija Ismayilova is a freelance reporter based in Baku and hosts a daily program on current affairs broadcast by the Azeri Service of RFE/RL.
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