Amid crackdown in Azerbaijan, blogger gets the harshest sentence

This past week has been particularly difficult for human rights activists in Azerbaijan, the host country of the 2012 UN Internet Governance Forum (IGF). Last Wednesday January 23, protests over corruption erupted in Ismayilli, northwest of the Azerbaijani capital Baku, culminating in calls for the local mayor to step down. In response, authorities arrested approximately 150 protesters according to Human Rights Watch. That following Saturday, January 26, a demonstration that drew hundreds of people in solidarity with Ismayilli protest was brutally dispersed, with more than 50 demonstrators arrested, including many digital rights activists.

Among those arrested were prominent blogger and social media activist Emin Milli, and award-winning investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova. While some protesters were released after being transported to the outskirts of Baku, others were detained and remain in administrative detention for participating in and organizing an unsanctioned rally. Five activists received sentences ranging from 13 to 15 days of administrative detention, with Milli receiving the longest sentence. The courts also fined around 20 activists ranging from 400 AZN (about $510) to 2,500 AZN ($3,200) for similar crimes.

This is not Milli’s first time in prison. He served 16 months of a two-and-a-half year sentence in 2009, released in part due to strong international pressure on the government of Azerbaijan. His only crime was criticizing the Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev online, though he was charged formally with “hooliganism.”

Milli remains a strong critic of the government of Azerbaijan and advocate of digital rights. During the 2012 IGF, Milli wrote a letter to president Aliyev highlighting the irony of Baku hosting the preeminent global meeting on internet policy. He reminded us all that, “As someone who was jailed for using the internet to criticize you and your policies, I have experienced an inconvenient truth – the internet is not free in Azerbaijan and it is definitely not free from fear.” Milli is currently serving his 15 day sentence.

Ismayilova–who may be Azerbaijan’s only investigative journalist–is known for her writing on corruption in the ruling family. (She also served on Access’s IGF panel “A Plan for Rights-Respecting Telecoms” and wrote Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net report for Azerbaijan.) According to the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF), the police rough-handled Ismayilova, denied her access to her lawyer, detained her for seven hours, and ultimately charged her with violating the Law on the Freedom of Assembly, and fined her 400 AZN (about $510). She told IWMF “These fines are a new thing… A couple of months ago they changed the law introducing punishment for participation in non-sanctioned rallies. The government doesn’t authorize any protest rally in this country, so all rallies are non-sanctioned.”

Ismayilova became the topic of an online scandal herself last year when a sex tape of her was released online a week after she was threatened to “behave” or be defamed. She traced the threat to a Moscow post office and discovered wires in her apartment. Rather than investigating this invasion of privacy, the government released the names and addresses of Ismayilova’s friends whom they had questioned.

Civil and political rights are notoriously restricted in Azerbaijan, and it unfortunately is not unexpected that the government would crack down on popular political dissent. While the roundup of protesters in Ismayilli and Baku demonstrates the government’s intolerance for political organizing; doling out the strongest sentence to a prominent blogger is particularly telling–signalling the disdain, and perhaps fear, with which the authorities view online activism. Access is deeply concerned about the ongoing intimidation, harassment, and detention of bloggers and journalists in Azerbaijan, and the gross violation of human rights these arrests represent. We stand with other organizations, such as the Civic Solidarity Platform, International Partnership Group for Azerbaijan (IPGA), and Reporters Without Borders, in condemning these actions and calling for the immediate release and humane treatment all imprisoned activists.