A few weeks ago, on January 21, I met up with activists from Azerbaijan and elsewhere at a protest outside the imposing offices of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin. They chanted slogans to send a message to Merkel, who was meeting Azerbaijan's president, Ilham Aliyev, urging her to focus on human rights in the talks. Many of the Azerbaijani activists gathered there had fled the country, fearing their human rights activism would land them in an Azerbaijan prison. Little did they know that this peaceful protest in Berlin would have serious repercussions for their family members back home.

Tural Sadigli, a 31-year-old blogger, is one of these activists. On February 13 his older brother, Elgiz, 37, who lives in Baku, was arrested and charged with possessing around 1.5 kilograms of marijuana. A day later he was placed in pretrial detention for two months. He could be imprisoned for three years if found guilty.

Is there a connection between the protest and the arrest? He can’t prove it, but Sadigli is sure that the charges against Elgiz are trumped up, a politically motivated attempt by the authorities to harass and persecute the relatives of government critics living abroad.

Certainly, Human Rights Watch has documented many cases in Azerbaijan where activists and their relatives are harassed, with the aim of pressing the individuals to halt their activism. We have also documented many cases in which drugs are planted on people to provide grounds for bogus criminal charges. In many such cases, police questioning is more about the individuals’ activism than about the drugs.

As Sadigli described it, his brother’s case fits this pattern well. Elgiz was stopped by police in his car. He said that while riding in the police car he felt an officer put something in his pocket—some of the alleged drugs—and although he managed to throw them away, the officers simply repeated the plant in the police station, and also placed drugs in his car.

Police also called in for questioning Sadigli’s father, Alovsat Sadigli, 63, and held him overnight. He told Sadigli that police informed him the two detentions were due to his son’s activities in Berlin.

The relatives of other exiled activists who joined the Berlin protest have also been called in for questioning, according to information gathered by Sadigli. In two cases, relatives have lost their jobs. In one case, one of the relatives was shown a picture of the Berlin protest.

For Chancellor Merkel, the consequences of Sadigli’s protest on her doorstep should bring home the scale of the Azerbaijan government’s disregard for human rights. She said that she had raised human rights concerns with Aliyev; now she has a good reason to tell him that such retribution is completely unacceptable and that Elgiz Sadigli—and the many others held on politically motivated charges—should be immediately released.