Human rights activists in Azerbaijan characterize the criminal prosecution of opposition editor Eynulla Fatullayev, as well as the recent convictions of youth activists Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade, as politically motivated efforts to repress dissenting voices. Activists add that more Western pressure on Baku is needed to arrest the government's efforts to stifle freedom of speech.
Milli and Hajizade were convicted in November on hooliganism charges. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
More recently, Fatullayev's case has been in the spotlight. In 2007, Fatullayev, who founded and edited two independent newspapers, received an eight-and-a-half-year prison sentence for allegedly inciting "national hatred." In late December of 2009, at a time when the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) was preparing to hear an appeal of the 2007 conviction, Azerbaijani prosecutors brought a fresh drug-possession charge against Fatullayev. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Observers believe the ECHR court review and the drug-possession charge are connected. Erkin Gadirli, a seasoned Baku-based legal expert and a co-founder of the Respublikachi Alternative (REAL) opposition movement, believes that Azerbaijani authorities realized they stood a good chance of losing the ECHR case. Thus, they sought to find a way to ensure that Fatullayev would remain behind bars, where he could not be a nuisance to President Ilham Aliyev's administration, Gadirli suggested.
"There were so many violations of the European Convention on Human Rights during Eynulla's  trial that one could be confident that the ECHR's ruling would be against the government," Gadirli told EurasiaNet on January 11.
"Authorities understand that the European Court would acquit him and call for his release. In order not to allow it, the government came with a foul provocation," Fatullayev father, Emin, was quoted as saying by the Turan news agency. Fatullayev himself, speaking via his lawyer Isakhan Ashurov, called the charge a "provocation".
"I met with Eynulla in the detention center and he strongly rejects these charges. ... Eynulla is full of optimism and not broken psychologically," Ashurov said in an interview.
Some experts maintained that it would be virtually impossible for Fatullayev, in prison, to obtain heroin, as prosecutors have alleged. Mirza Sakit, a satirist-poet and former columnist for the Azadlig opposition newspaper, said that, on the other hand, it would not be a problem for authorities to manufacture an incident. "It is very easy to [for prison management] to plant drugs secretly on any prisoner at any time," Sakit told EurasiaNet on January 7. Sakit was released from prison in 2009 after serving a three-year prison term for drug possession.
Officials in charge of Azerbaijan's penal system insist that drug use is prevalent in prisons. In 2009, there were uncovered 41 instances of distribution and use, involving in total 153 grams of heroin, according to a statement issued by the state agency for administering the penal system.
Concerning Fatullayev's specific case, prison authorities said they received a tip, and on the basis of that "operating data" they conducted a search of Fatullayev's cell on December 29. "The statements of some human rights defenders are misleading public opinion and serve certain interests," the official statement asserted.
Mehman Aliyev, a member of the Committee for Defense of Freedom of Speech and the director of Turan news agency, believes securing the release of Fatullayev, Milli, Hajizade and other free-speech convicts will be "a matter of dialogue, or bargaining between the Azerbaijani government and the West" during the run-up to parliamentary elections this coming November. "It can't be excluded that they will be released closer to elections, if Western pressure is really strong," Aliyev said.
The public Committee for Defense of Freedom of Speech, a group uniting journalists, human rights defenders and the civil society activists, issued an appeal to the international community on January 4. The group called the drug-possession charge against Fatullayev an "unprecedented provocation." It went on to call for international sanctions against Azerbaijani officials due to their "endless violations of freedom of speech."
"Once again we want to emphasize that the President Ilham Aliyev is personally behind all these attacks [to freedom of speech]," the statement said.
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance correspondent based in Baku. He is also a board member of the Open Society Institute-Azerbaijan.