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(New York) - The Nizami District Court of Ganja city sentenced a youth activist to two years in prison for military draft evasion on May 18, 2011, in a politically motivated trial, Human Rights Watch said today. European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek should urge the authorities to release the activist and investigate his abuse in custody during his visit to Azerbaijan on May 20, Human Rights Watch said.

Bakhtiar Hajiyev, 29, a Harvard University graduate and a member of the youth movement "Positive Change," was arrested on March 4, in advance of a protest planned for March 11 that he actively promoted through social media. He was charged with evading mandatory military service and held in pretrial detention. His lawyer told Human Rights Watch that the police severely beat Hajiyev while he was in their custody and that the prosecutor's office failed to investigate his complaint about the abuse.

"Hajiyev's arrest, beating, and now conviction are examples of the Azerbaijani government's efforts to silence dissent," said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The authorities should immediately quash the case against him, free him, and investigate how he was treated in custody."

Hajiyev ran for parliament from his home town of Ganja in November 2010. As an active social media user, Hajiyev made calls for peaceful protests, echoing the developments in the Middle East. In one of his Facebook posts he called on police not to harm people who might come out to the streets expressing their grievances. Hajiyev was arrested two hours after he posted the statement. The March 11 protest was violently dispersed by the authorities.

Hajiyev's lawyer, Elchin Namazov, told Human Rights Watch that his client had suffered ill-treatment in police custody immediately following his detention. When he visited Hajiyev on May 5, Namazov saw an open wound on Hajiyev's neck, bruises on his eyes, and a hematoma on the left side of his nose. Hajiyev had problems moving and turning his body left or right.

Hajiyev told his lawyer that police in Ganja hit him on the back and slapped his face. They also allegedly forced him to sit on a chair while a policeman forced his head down between his legs and hit him repeatedly on the back. Namazov arranged for Hajiyev to be examined by a doctor in the detention center. The doctor made a short report for Namazov. Namazov filed a complaint with the Ganja prosecutor's office, seeking an investigation, but the authorities failed to investigate.

The authorities had been investigating Hajiyev for draft evasion since January 2010 and had told him not to leave Ganja. Hajiyev had not sought to evade the draft but had asked to be allowed to perform alternative service, as permitted under Azerbaijan's constitution. However, rather than providing him with some sort of alternative service, the authorities arrested and prosecuted him for draft evasion. Over a decade ago when Azerbaijan applied and was granted membership of the Council of Europe, it made an express commitment to "adopt, within two years of accession, a law on alternative service in compliance with European standards and, in the meantime, to pardon all conscientious objectors presently serving prison terms..." Although alternative service is recognized in the constitution, there is no implementing legislation for this right.

"Not only has Azerbaijan failed to meet its commitment as a member of the Council of Europe, it is using its failure to implement the right to alternative service as a tool to opportunistically go after democratic opponents," Denber said.

On May 12, the European Parliament passed a resolution expressing "deep concern at the increasing number of incidents of harassment, attacks, and violence against civil society and social network activists and journalists in Azerbaijan." It strongly deplored the "practice of intimidating, arresting, prosecuting and convicting independent journalists and political activists on various criminal charges," and called on the authorities to release all members of the opposition, youth activists, and bloggers in custody, including Hajiyev.

"During his visit to Baku this week, Jerzy Buzek should insist that Azerbaijani authorities end their crackdown on critics and free the people it threw in jail for doing no more than exercising their basic rights," Denber said. "The European Union should also make clear that it will only deepen its political and economic ties with Azerbaijan when the authorities make concrete human rights improvements."

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