On Saturday 19 January 2019, thousands took to the streets of Baku, Azerbaijan, to call for the release of jailed IFEX member and Chair of the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS), Mehman Huseynov.
Huseynov, who is coming to the end of a two-year prison sentence on trumped-up libel charges, was accused in December of attacking a prison official. This new, politically-motivated charge came after he refused to end his criticism of President Aliyev's corrupt regime. Huseynov faces up to seven years in jail if convicted and is on hunger strike in protest.
Today in #Azerbaijan - despite threats, detentions & administrative obstacles - thousands of citizens gathered to demand #FreeMehman & release #politicalprisoners. In this video, people chanting "Mehman" in the streets: https://t.co/3dh1PGOCvM pic.twitter.com/HykyZB4kn0— Necmin Kamil (@necminkamil) January 19, 2019
There is large disparity between the government and organisers' claims regarding how many people showed their support for Huseynov and other political prisoners in Baku on Saturday. The authorities, who deny the existence of political prisoners in Azerbaijan, said that the protesters numbered around 2,800; organisers of the protest said that the figure was closer to 20,000. Approximately 100 protesters were detained.
The demonstration came on the back of the European Parliament's vote on 17 January to adopt a resolution calling for Huseynov's immediate and unconditional release. The resolution, which was approved with 89% of the vote, also called on Azerbaijan to end "the crackdown on dissent", guarantee press freedom, and release ten other political prisoners.
Thank you @Europarl_EN for adopting the resolution on #Azerbaijan and demanding #MehmanHuseynov's immediate and unconditional release by an overwhelming majority of 533 votes. Now we call on @EU_Commission and @EUCouncil to pressure #Azerbaijan to free all political prisoners. pic.twitter.com/kqjdF80gHt— @IRFS_ORG (@IRFS_ORG) January 17, 2019
Four of these political prisoners - Ilkin Rustamzade, Bayram Mammadov, Ahsan Nuruzade and Elchin Ismayilli - announced on 13 January that they had joined Huseynov's hunger strike in solidarity with him and all political prisoners in Azerbaijan.
Political prisoners Ilkin Rustamzade, Bayram Mammadov,Elchin Ismayil, Ahsan Nuruzade start indefinite #hungerstrike in support to #MehmanHuseynov.Crimes against #PressFreedom & #humanrights will not go unnoticed.Time to set him free, the world is watching.#Azerbaijan #FreeMehman pic.twitter.com/Iy1j8MAxFy— Alex Raufoglu (@ralakbar) January 13, 2019
They were joined by the independent journalist and frequent target of the Aliyev regime, Khadija Ismayilova. By 19 January, there were reports that one of the hunger strikers, Ahsan Nuruzade, had been transferred from his prison to an unknown location as punishment for his role in the protest.
There have been disturbing reports that the authorities faked a letter by Huseynov, informing local media that he had ended his hunger strike. Huseynov's brother and founder of IRFS, Emin, has denied that the letter came from Huseynov, who is still on hunger strike. However, Huseynov is now drinking milk (he had been on an extremely dangerous no-liquid hunger strike).
IFEX members have been calling for the charges against Huseynov to be dropped and for him to be unconditionally released. Recently, Reporters Without Borders' Rebecca Vincent urged the European Bank for Restructuring and Development to "suspend all current projects with the Azerbaijani government and make any further loans contingent upon extensive concrete democratic reforms, including the immediate release of the currently jailed journalists and citizen journalists".
European institutions have been quick to voice concern about Huseynov's situation.
On 4 January, the co-rapporteurs of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe for the monitoring of Azerbaijan called on the Azerbaijani authorities to review Huseynov's case "as a matter of priority". They said:
"Unfortunately, there are justified grounds for the assumption that these new charges are clearly politically motivated and clearly designed to further silence a prominent human rights activist whom we consider a political prisoner... Furthermore, we are alarmed by the fact that Mehman Huseynov has embarked upon a hunger strike as the only means available to him to protest about his plight".
A few days later, on 7 January, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, spoke to Azerbaijan's Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mahmud Mammad-Guliyev:
"I told the Deputy Minister that the authorities should drop the charges initiated against Mr Huseynov on 26 December because they lack credibility. I also underscored that the authorities are under the obligation to provide the necessary medical care to Mr Huseynov whose conditions are extremely worrying. For this reason he should be transferred to a civil hospital where he can receive the necessary medical care".
On 9 January, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir, wrote to Azerbaijan's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Elmar Mammadyarov, to express his serious concerns about the case. In his letter, Désir said: "It is deeply worrying that the latest incident occurred just before Mehman Huseynov's expected release from prison in March 2019 and that the new charges may entail his imprisonment for up to 7 additional years… I call on the authorities to drop new criminal charges against Huseynov and to release him as soon as possible".