Jabbar Savalan, a 20-year-old opposition youth activist arrested in Azerbaijan on 5 February, has been sentenced to two and a half years in prison on drug possession charges. However, his supporters and friends as well as many media freedom and human rights watchdogs, maintain that Javalan was detained because of calls made on Facebook for demonstrations to be held in Azerbaijan following popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
In a press release following Wednesday's verdict, Amnesty International said that it considered the young activist to be a prisoner of conscience.
“All the evidence points to the fact that Jabbar Savalan has been convicted on trumped up charges,” said John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia Deputy Programme Director at Amnesty International.
“It’s clear that the real reason he was tried and now convicted was to punish him for – and dissuade others from – calling for anti-government protests inspired by events in the Middle East. Jabbar Savalan is being punished for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression.”
Jabbar Savalan was convicted despite a blood test showing he had not used drugs. The conviction was largely based on a confession he was forced to sign and has since retracted. He did not have access to a lawyer during the interrogation.
Although media freedom has long been a concern in Azerbaijan, recent events have highlighted an increasing number of cases concerning online freedom of expression. In March, Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, a Harvard graduate and political activist was also arrested ostensibly for evading military service at the same time as organizing pro-democracy demonstrations in the country via Facebook. Criminal charges have also been launched against another one of the organizers, Strasbourg-based Elnur Majidli.
Critics of the authorities in the oil-rich former Soviet republic maintain that the situation is fast becoming more serious even when compared to the country's previous record of crushing dissent. Another Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, journalist Eynulla Fatullayev, already remains in prison even though the European Court of Human Rights ruled in his favor and demanded his immediate release. Like Savalan, Fatullayev is now imprisoned on drug possession charges.
Speaking at this week's UNESCO World Press Freedom Day event, Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli noted how such charges continue to be used to silence critical voices. The two video blogging youth activists imprisoned in 2009 and conditionally released in November last year joined a panel of youth leaders over Skype. Ironically, however, the following day the Azerbaijani Minister of Communication Ali Abbasov voiced his concern that Skype posed a threat to national security.
The timing of the comments might well have been coincidental, but given the government's track record to date, suspect that more is yet to come and probably with good reason. Marking World Press Freedom Day, Reporters Without Borders named Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev 1 of 38 “Predators of Press Freedom.”