Political satire does not go unpunished in Azerbaijan. In another mockery of justice, a Baku court sentenced 21-year-old activist Bayram Mammadov to ten years in jail. What devilish act got him there? Nothing more than spraying graffiti making fun of the lavish expenditures for the former president’s annual birthday celebration.
Mammadov sprayed the graffiti on a statue of the former president, Heydar Aliyev, father of the current president, Ilham Aliyev. Naturally, the authorities pressed fabricated drug charges against Mammadov, the tactic it commonly uses against youth activists to intimidate them and deter others from following suit.
Police detained Mammadov, together with 22-year-old Giyas Ibrahimov, in May. Both had been identified on CCTV footage as having painted graffiti on the Heydar Aliyev statue. The graffiti said: “Happy Slave Day” in Azeri, a play on words for “Happy Flower Day.” Azerbaijan has celebrated Flower Day, also Heydar Aliyev’s birthday, since 2009.
Both young men are students and members of NIDA, Azeri for exclamation mark, a youth opposition movement active on social media that is highly critical of the government. Twelve other NIDA activists have been convicted since 2014; three remain in jail.
Mammadov and Ibrahimov made a false confession to the drug charges after police beat them, forced them to remove their pants, and threatened to rape them with truncheons and bottles. At the court hearing, they retracted the false confessions, told the judge they had painted the graffiti, and said that police beat them after they refused to apologize on camera. The authorities failed to investigate the allegations of abuse, and instead charged them with drug-related crimes.
In late October, the court handed down a ten-year prison sentence to Ibrahimov.
Mammadov and Ibrahimov join dozens of other political and youth activists who have been arrested on politically motivated criminal charges over past three years in Azerbaijan.
Meanwhile, the authorities spare no effort to protect the honor and dignity of the president. Last week, Azerbaijan’s parliament approved a bill criminalizing defamation and “derogation of honor and dignity” of the country’s president on the Internet, even when it is done under fake names or profiles. In an environment where the government already has full control of the traditional media, the amendments intend to intimidate a growing number of online activists.
Azerbaijani authorities should immediately and unconditionally free Mammadov, Ibrahimov and others jailed on politically motivated charges for exercising their freedom of expression, and end the crackdown against dissenting voices.