(Berlin) – A photographer and social media activist who photographed and exposed police violence as Azerbaijan prepared for the Eurovision Song Contest in May 2012 was detained and is facing spurious hooliganism charges, Human Rights Watch said today. Mehman Huseynov, 23, was released on the evening of June 13 on his own recognizance, but faces criminal prosecution. The authorities should drop the bogus charges against Huseynov and ensure that he can exercise his right to freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said.
Huseynov collaborated with numerous local and international media outlets and was very active in Sing for Democracy, a civil society campaign that sought to expose and seek improvements to Azerbaijan’s human rights record as the country geared up to host the Eurovision Song Contest from May 22 to 26. Huseynov’s photographs were widely disseminated on social media outlets and used by local and international media and other organizations. Many activists feared the authorities would crack down on critics and activists once the song contest ended and international attention on Azerbaijan faded.
“To any rational observer, the charges against Huseynov appear to be retaliation for his extensive work during the Eurovision campaign,” said Giorgi Gogia, senior South Caucasus researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should immediately drop the charges against him, and Azerbaijan’s international partners should take this as a signal of a potentially broader crackdown.”
On June 12, Huseynov, a blogger and photographer at the Institute for Reporters’ Freedoms and Safety (IRFS), a leading media rights monitoring nongovernmental group in Azerbaijan, was summoned to the Sabail district police station of Baku. After interrogating him for three hours, police placed him in custody, pending the filing of charges. Twenty-four hours later police charged him with hooliganism “committed with resistance to a representative of the authority” (article 221.2.2 of the criminal code). If convicted, Huseynov may be sentenced to up to five years in prison.
The Sabail District Court declined the prosecutor’s motion to impose pretrial detention and released Huseynov on June 13 while the case is under investigation. Though he was released on his own recognizance, he is not permitted to leave Baku during the investigation.
Huseynov’s lawyer, Elchin Sadigov, told Human Rights Watch that the criminal case was initiated on May 29, three days after the Eurovision final in Baku, on a complaint filed by five police officers. They allege that Huseynov verbally and physically abused them on May 21 during an unsanctioned opposition demonstration in downtown Baku. During Huseynov’s initial interrogation, police apparently showed him video footage allegedly depicting him in an argument with a policeman at a rally.
A Human Rights Watch representative monitored the rally and documented the use of violence by police to disperse dozens of peaceful political activists, rounding them up, dragging them, and forcing them into police cars. Huseynov photographed and filmed the rally, including police violence, on behalf of IRFS.
Huseynov told Human Rights Watch that he had a verbal confrontation with a policeman who deliberately smashed Huseynov’s camera and damaged its hard disk. He said that the exchange of words lasted only a few seconds and that there was no physical contact between him and the policeman. Under Azerbaijani law, the criminal offense of hooliganism involves the use of violence. Video footage widely available online does not show Huseynov involved in any violent action.
The charges against Huseynov appear excessive, maliciously motivated, and with little evidence to support them, Human Rights Watch said. The prosecution appears clearly intended to intimidate and punish Huseynov for his activism, and to send a warning sign to others.
Human Rights Watch called on Azerbaijani’s international partners and the European Broadcast Union, which oversees the Eurovision Song Contest, to speak out about Huseynov’s arrest and prosecution and to try to prevent further crackdown against human rights activists.