(New York) - Azerbaijani courts sentenced an opposition social media activist to two-and-a-half years in prison on bogus drug possession charges on May 4, 2011, Human Rights Watch said today. In addition, a court ordered the detention of a human rights defender on May 3, for allegedly interfering in the November 2010 parliamentary elections.

The government in Azerbaijan has been cracking down on critical voices in the country in an attempt to prevent the type of protests in North Africa and the Middle East from spreading to Azerbaijan.

"These are two fresh examples of the government's efforts to silence critical voices," said Rachel Denber, acting Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "It is shocking that a Council of Europe member is getting away with such blatant repression."

The Sumgait City Court convicted and sentenced Jabbar Savalanli, an opposition Popular Front Party youth activist, on the bogus drug charges. Savalanli, 20, a second-year student at Sumgait State University, is an active social media user and had posted several very critical comments of the Azerbaijani leadership and called for their resignation. Local human rights activists and diplomatic and international observers expressed concern, saying the charges were unfounded and had apparently been brought in retribution for his political opposition to the government.

Savalanli was arrested on February 5 at his apartment building entrance and taken to the Sumgait city police station, where police searched him and said they found 0.74 grams of marijuana in his coat pocket. Savalanli was interrogated without his lawyer present and was forced to write a confession. His lawyer was allowed to meet with him only afterward.

A forensic narcotics examination conducted by state officials on Savalanli, made public on March 9, stated that forensic experts could not identify any signs of drug dependency but could not exclude the possibility that he had used drugs. Savalanli's lawyer's requests for a further independent examination were denied.

This is not the first time the authorities have used drug possession charges against government critics. In 2010, Eynulla Fatullayev, a journalist serving an eight-and-a-half-year prison term for "criminal defamation," threatening terrorism and inciting ethnic hatred, was sentenced to an additional two-and-a-half years for alleged drug possession. The drug charges were added before a European Court of Human Rights ruling on Fatullayev's case. In June 2006 Mirza Sakit, a satirist and reporter for the opposition daily Azadlig was arrested and convicted on similar drug possession charges and served nearly three years in prison.

Savalanli's lawyer, Anar Gasimov, told Human Rights Watch that after the trial, a local police official warned him about possible repercussions for "working against the interests of the state."

On May 3, Baku's Nasimi District Court remanded a human rights defender, Vidadi Isganderov, to two months in pretrial custody for allegedly interfering with the November 2010 parliamentary election. Isganderov, a lawyer by education, is the head of "Support for Protection of Democracy," a nongovernmental group that does a wide range of human rights work. Isganderov had defended the rights of homeowners who had been swindled by bogus construction companies and also those who had been victims of alleged police extortion. In past years, Interior Ministry officials had brought several defamation charges against him, but none resulted in convictions.  

Isganderov is charged under Criminal Code articles 159.4.1 (interference with the right to vote) and 160.2.1 (interference with the activities of the electoral commissions). Isganderov ran in the November 2010 parliamentary elections as a candidate from Agdash-Goychay electoral district. Following the elections he submitted to the police and prosecutor's office materials, including video evidence, of alleged vote rigging in his electoral district, but the authorities refused to investigate the allegations.

Isganderov was arrested twice in April for participating in unsanctioned opposition rallies and was sentenced on misdemeanor charges of disobeying police orders. When his second sentence was about to expire, instead of releasing him, the authorities initiated the new criminal charge of interference in elections against him. 

"The timing of the new charges against Isganderov makes clear this is a transparent attempt to punish him for his activism," Denber said. "He should be released immediately."