President Ilham Aliyev’s regime continues to turn a deaf ear to all the calls for the release of Mehman Huseynov, whose hunger strike entered its fourth week today. At his family’s request, he is now consuming liquids and some yogurt, for its calcium content. Held since 2017, he started the hunger strike when new charges were brought against him that could prevent him from being released on completion of his sentence in few months’ time.
His protest has triggered a remarkable wave of solidarity in Azerbaijan, where civil society is subjected to draconian persecution. Around 20 dissidents have begun their own hunger strike to call for his release and the release of other political prisoners. They include the well-known journalists Khadija Ismayilova and Tofig Yagublu, the imprisoned journalists Fikret Faramazoglu and Elchin Ismayilli and the imprisoned blogger Rashad Ramazanov.
Other journalists and activists have been sentenced to up to 25 days in administrative detention for demonstrating in support of Huseynov in early January.
Despite the many calls for Huseynov’s release in Europe and the United States, the Azerbaijani authorities have so far limited themselves to reporting that he is in good health and accusing “anti-Azerbaijani” forces of exploiting the situation. The prison authorities have nonetheless allowed his father and diplomats to visit him.
“Only a strong and persistent international campaign could persuade the Azerbaijani government to free Mehman Huseynov and stop harassing the country’s last critical journalists,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
“The Aliyev regime’s impunity must be ended without delay. We call on the international community to impose targeted sanctions on the leading figures involved in the crackdown and to condition any improvement in relations on the restoration of pluralism and the rule of law.”
RSF urges the European Parliament to approve the emergency resolution reflecting these concerns that is due to be submitted tomorrow. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has also announced that it will debate the worsening human rights situation in Azerbaijan during its next session.
Jailed since March 2017 for allegedly “defaming” the policeman he said had tortured him while he was previously detained, Huseynov is well known as a blogger for criticizing the regime and denouncing high-level corruption.
He is also the president of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS), a media defence NGO that has repeatedly been targeted by the authorities. It is now run from abroad by his brother, Emin Huseynov, a fellow-journalist who had to flee the country. When their mother died last August, Mehman Huseynov was not allowed to pay her a final visit.
Azerbaijan is ranked 163rd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index. The leading critical media outlets have been silenced or have had to relocate abroad, the main independent websites are blocked, at least ten journalists are currently in prison, and the activities of NGOs that support the media have been criminalized. The additional charges against Huseynov are part of the new crackdown on the country’s last dissident journalists.