By Rebecca Vincent
In a single hearing, a Baku court created a greater chilling effect on freedom of expression online than perhaps ever before in Azerbaijan. On May 6, the Baku Court of Grave Crimes sentenced eight young Azerbaijani activists to serious time in jail. Rashadat Akhundov, Mammad Azizov, Rashad Hasanov, Bakhtiyar Guliyev, Zaur Gurbanli, Uzeyir Mammadli, Shahin Novruzlu, and Ilkin Rustemzade were convicted on a range of trumped-up charges and sentenced to between six and eight years of imprisonment.
Seven of the young men are members of the NIDA (“Exclamation”) civic movement, which promotes democracy, human rights, and rule of law. Ilkin Rustemzade is a member of another pro-democracy youth movement, the Azad Genclik (Free Youth) organization. The groups regularly use social networks and online forums to galvanize support for protests and other activities.
From January to March 2013, the eight activists were involved in a series of peaceful protests against the deaths of young soldiers in non-combat situations. The protests, held on January 12 and 26 and March 10, 2013 in central Baku, were unsanctioned, and the authorities responded harshly, using excessive force to disperse crowds and detaining scores of protesters.
The youth have been recognized by Amnesty International as prisoners of conscience, and are widely considered among Azerbaijani civil society to be political prisoners. They are among nearly 100 cases reported by local human rights organizations of individuals who are currently in detention or prison for political reasons.
More than 150 supporters gathered outside the courthouse on the day of the verdict hearing, resulting in clashes with police and lengthy administrative detention sentences for five activists, one of whom, Kamala Baynanyarli, has reportedly been tortured in custody.
Crackdown on online dissent
Although they were also more generally politically active, these eight young men appear to have been targeted in part for their online activism. Like many other young Azerbaijanis, prior to their arrest, they were all active users of social media networks, particularly Facebook. Several of the activists were administrators of the “Heydar Aliyev Page” on Facebook, which provided a forum for satirical political discussion.
It was through Facebook that the March 10, 2013 protest against the deaths of soldiers in non-combat situations was organized, with approximately 15,000 people indicating online that they would attend (although actual turnout was much lower–anywhere from 500 to 4,000, according to various reports). Further, some of the charges against two of the activists–Ilkin Rustemzade and Bakhtiyar Guliyev–were directly connected to their alleged involvement in the Harlem Shake video that was posted on YouTube and other sites.
These youth are not alone in being targeted for their online activism. Five bloggers–Abdul Abilov, Elvin Karimov, Omar Mammadov, Elsever Mursalli, and Rashad Ramazanov–are currently in detention or in prison on politically motivated charges. Two of the 10 journalists currently behind bars in Azerbaijan–Nijat Aliyev and Araz Guliyev–are website editors, and one of the charges against imprisoned journalist Faramaz Allahverdiyev is connected with his alleged calls for mass disorder on Facebook.
Though a range of politically motivated charges was applied in these cases, the authorities now have a more direct means of pursuing legal cases against bloggers and online activists. In May 2013, parliament adopted regressive legislation that explicitly extended criminal defamation provisions to online content. The legislation was signed into law by President Ilham Aliyev, and came into effect in July 2013. As a result, Azerbaijanis can now face up to three years in jail for their online postings.
The young men were arrested between March 7 and May 17, 2013. The arrest of the first three activists took place just ahead of the unsanctioned protest on March 10, 2013. The others were arrested in the weeks that followed.
The seven NIDA members were initially charged with illegal possession of drugs, weapons, and explosives, while the case against Azad Genclik member Ilkin Rustemzade was originally separate. Rustemzade was first charged with hooliganism, in connection with a Harlem Shake video filmed in Baku. In September 2013, all eight men were additionally charged with organizing mass violent disorder. They were accused of planning to use Molotov cocktails at the March 10 demonstration–despite the fact that the protest and all other public activities the eight man took part in were peaceful.
One of the young prisoners, Shahin Novruzlu, was a minor at the time of his arrest, only 17 years old. He was questioned without a lawyer or parent present, and severely beaten, resulting in the loss of four of his teeth. He was forced to appear on state television along with Bakhtiyar Guliyev and Mammad Azizov, “confessing” to their crimes, which they later reported was a result of having been tortured and threatened. Azizov testified that he had been beaten on two separate occasions, leaving him unable to walk for a week and unable to hear from one ear for two months. He also reported being threatened with rape.
Another of the youth, Rashadat Akhundov, has experienced particularly difficult family circumstances since his arrest. In May 2013, Akhundov’s wife gave birth to the couple’s only child, a son who has now celebrated his first birthday with his father still in jail. Then tragically, in September 2013, Akhundov’s 74-year-old grandfather, who had raised him like a father, committed suicide after learning about the harsher charges filed against his grandson.
All of this–but in particular, the verdict in the NIDA case–has had a distinct chilling effect on online freedom of expression in Azerbaijan. Perhaps because they were young, creative, educated, well-networked, and above all, relatable, the sentencing of these eight men to serious jail time seems to have struck a deeper chord in online Azerbaijani circles than any previous cases of political prisoners. That effect was the likely intent of making examples of these young men in the first place.
But that is not how the eight activists wanted their case to be interpreted. In a final joint statement read aloud by Rashadat Akhundov during the May 1 session of their trial, the youth concluded: “We are not going anywhere and [are] coming back. Because we exist anyway, we are here, with you. Even if 10 members of NIDA are in jail, those of you who are free are replacing us. We call on you to continue the fight for us with even more principal and relentlessness. Do not ever surrender to slander! Hold your heads high, your wills strong!”
One thing is for certain: in targeting these eight young men, the Azerbaijani authorities have succeeded in getting the attention of the young generation, of a growing community of online activists. What remains to be seen is the longer-term impact this might have.
Rebecca Vincent is an American-British human rights activist and writer currently based in London. She is a former U.S. diplomat and has worked with a wide range of international and Azerbaijani human rights and freedom of expression organizations. Follow her on Twitter: @rebecca_vincent