Azerbaijan: Third Youth Activist Arrested
The detention of a third Azerbaijani youth activist is stoking speculation in Baku that President Ilham Aliyev's administration is mounting a campaign to intimidate and silence politically active young people.
On August 3, during a closed-door hearing at Baku's Narimanov District Court, a judge ordered Agasif Shakiroglu, the 21-year-old leader of the Hedef (Target) Youth Coalition, to be held for one month of pre-trial detention pending trial on a draft-dodging charge. Shakiroglu faces a potential two-year prison sentence if found guilty.
Shakiroglu is a friend of Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade, two other youth activists who have been held since early July on hooliganism charges. They are being held for two months of pre-trial detention. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive.]
The government claims that Shakiroglu ignored four summonses to report for military service. Shakiroglu, who told the Turan news agency that he had visited his district military registry three times in July, asserts that he never received a draft notification. His lawyer, Bahruz Guliyev, plans to appeal the court's decision.
Shakiroglu, who has written online articles critical of Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry, argues that he was detained on political grounds. He was also arrested on May 10 during a rally against the commemoration of the late president Heidar Aliyev's birthday. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
One political columnist contends that the government's patience for youth activists began to run out on that day. The protest came shortly after a shooting rampage at Baku's Oil Academy that left thirteen people dead - another potential source for criticism of the government. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives].
"The youth organizations surprised the authorities," said Rauf Mirkadirov, who writes for the Russian-language daily Zerkalo (Mirror). "They could have organized a demonstration of thousands of young people following the tragedy in the Oil Academy. It looks like [their protest] was unexpected for the government. And right after that, the prosecution of the youth activists started."
Emin Huseynov, head of the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS), also believes the three arrests mark the start of a government policy to rein in alternative voices. "It is an obvious restriction of political freedom," Huseynov commented. "It is a sign of tightening the screws before municipal elections in [the autumn of] 2009, but mainly it is preparation for parliamentary elections in 2010."
Shakiroglu's Hedef Coalition, founded in June 2008, describes its mission as protecting youth rights and increasing young people's involvement in Azerbaijan's political life and civil society. The organization presents itself as apolitical, but opposition Musavat Party Deputy Chairman Mekhman Javadoglu told EurasiaNet that the group has close ties with the party's youth wing. Javadoglu, however, denied any formal connection with Hedef.
Political analyst Ilgar Mammadov agrees with Huseynov's dire prediction; the detentions of Shakiroglu, Milli and Hajizade will not be the last, he predicts. "Now, authorities intend to put down youth power, which is building itself up, and new arrests are expected," he said. He characterized the recent detentions as a scare tactic. [Editor's note: Ilgar Mammadov is a board member of the Open Society Assistance Foundation-Azerbaijan, which is affiliated with the New York-based Open Society Institute (OSI). EurasiaNet operates under OSI's auspices].
A spokesperson for the Azerbaijan's Prosecutor's Office, Eldar Sultanov, said that there was no political motivation for the charge brought against Shakiroglu. Representatives of the presidential administration and the governing Yeni Azerbaijan Party could not be reached for comment.
While many youth activists appear to have been intimidated by the recent arrests, and have scaled back their activities accordingly, some say the detentions are causing the ranks of youth-activist groups to slowly grow. "Many people who were indifferent to politics in the past now join us because they understand that tomorrow will be their turn," said Vafa Jafarova, a former leader of the Dalga Youth Movement and now a member of the AN Network, headed by jailed Emin Milli.
Mina Muradova is a freelance reporter based in Baku.
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