A growing number of Azerbaijani political prisoners and opposition activists have declared hunger strikes in support of a young activist facing a long extension of his prison sentence on spurious charges.
At least seven political prisoners in Azerbaijan have declared hunger strikes in solidarity with Mehman Huseynov, a 26-year-old political blogger who declared a hunger strike on December 27. Huseynov had been nearing the end of a two-year prison sentence on charges that he defamed two police officers whom he accused of torturing him, but then the prison authorities accused him of attacking a prison officer, charges that his lawyer said could add up to seven years to his term. Huseynov has denied the charges and started the hunger strike to call attention to his plight.
Several members of the opposition Musavat party also joined the hunger strike.
"If we wait for our fate like sacrificial sheep, then tomorrow they will ‘find’ drugs, weapons, etc. under each pillow, or we will be accused of ‘beating’ someone," four of the political prisoners – Ilkin Rustamzadeh, Bayram Mammadov and Ahsan Nuruzadeh, and Elchin Ismailly – said in a statement announcing their hunger strike.
The solidarity actions came as international pressure against Azerbaijan mounted. An op-ed in the Washington Post was headlined “A jailed blogger in Azerbaijan is on a hunger strike to fight bogus charges. He must be freed.” Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović called on Azerbaijan to drop the charges, as did U.S. Representative Chris Smith, a leading campaigner in Congress on post-Soviet human rights. “Mehman has spent two years in jail for his work exposing the corruption of the [President Ilham] Aliyev regime,” Smith said. “President Aliyev must act now to bring an end to this latest shameful episode of the regime’s cruel campaign against free speech.”
The European Parliament also is drafting a resolution on Huseynov which is scheduled to come to a vote on January 17.
Alarmed at the growing international backlash, the Azerbaijani authorities have responded with a PR barrage blaming the usual suspects: unspecified “anti-Azerbaijani” circles. “Unfortunately, sometimes anti-Azerbaijan networks, luring their victims, such as Huseynov, use such young people and set them against national interests,” MP Hikmat Babaoglu told the news agency Trend. “The current situation is another wave of such a game."
The authorities have tried to claim that Huseynov is not on a hunger strike at all and arranged a meeting between him and several European diplomats on January 11. The EU delegation in Baku later issued a measured statement to the independent Turan news agency: “The aim of the meeting was to get acquainted with the health situation of Mehman Huseynov. The EU Delegation follows the situation very closely.”
Pro-government media seized on the meeting, along with an accompanying photo – taken and released by authorities – which showed the diplomats with a seemingly healthy Huseynov. “Another blow to false propaganda of anti-Azerbaijani forces,” went one headline in the news website Trend.
There has been some grumbling among Huseynov’s supporters in Azerbaijan about the fairly liberal hunger strike regime – he has been drinking milk and eating yogurt for about a week. His brother Emin, a fellow activist in exile in Switzerland, told Eurasianet that he has heard similar complaints but rejected them.
“If you are getting 30 per cent of your normal daily nutrition, it is also hunger strike,” Emin Huseynov said, comparing the regime to that of Oleg Sentsov, the Ukrainian filmmaker who is serving a 20-year prison sentence in Russia on bogus “terrorism” charges. Sentsov undertook a hunger strike for more than four months, losing about 20 kilograms.
Emin Huseynov also criticized the European diplomats for taking part in what he described as a whitewashing effort. "The diplomats were used as trolls, useful idiots by the government,” he said. “After their visit Mehman gave me a call to me saying that he is under pressure and [that he] did not tell them everything.”
Other activists also complained about what they called a tepid Western response. The four hunger-striking political prisoners, in their statement, predicted that “someone from the West” will broker a deal. The Westerners will then “return with oil and suitcases filled with euro and dollars and will quietly approve another wave of repression.”
Lamiya Adilgizi is a freelance Azerbaijani journalist. Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet, and author of The Bug Pit.
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Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.
Lamiya Adilgizi is a freelance Azerbaijani journalist.