Imprisoning one of the country’s most popular journalists and bloggers, Mehman Huseynov, for allegedly libeling a police chief is a new low even for Azerbaijan. Last week, a Baku court sentenced Huseynov to two years in prison for defaming the police chief of the city’s Nasimi district, after he dared to go public about abuse he’d suffered at the hands of police officers.

Mehman Huseynov.

© 2017 Aziz Karimov

The incident in question took place on January 9, 2017, when a group of plainclothes officers attacked Huseynov, blindfolded and gagged him with towels, forced a bag over his head, used an electroshock weapon on his groin, and punched him, bloodying his nose. At the Nasimi district police station, officers made Huseynov sign documents, even though he was barely conscious, and the next day brought him before a court that found him guilty of disobeying police orders and fined him 200 manat (US$120).

Huseynov’s lawyer, who was only allowed to see him for the first time in the courtroom, said he could see signs of injuries to Huseynov’s legs, groin, hands, and eye.

The signal the authorities were sending to Huseynov was clear: He should stop his journalist investigations and hard-hitting exposés, or face the consequences.

But Huseynov remained defiant and even went public about his ordeal, filing a complaint against the police. He also produced a video last month that went viral, asking fellow Azerbaijanis how they felt about the appointment of the country’s first lady as Azerbaijan’s new vice-president.

While the authorities formally opened an investigation into his abuse claims, it was swiftly closed down after finding them groundless. At the same time, the Nasimi police chief brought a private lawsuit for criminal defamation. It took just two hearings for the court to find Huseynov guilty and order him jailed.

Huseynov joins dozens of other journalists, bloggers, and activists in prison on politically motivated charges in Azerbaijan. The authorities should immediately free Huseynov and hold abusive police officials to account. Torture and ill-treatment in police custody is a well-documented and persistent problem in Azerbaijan. Huseynov’s jailing not only upholds police impunity, but could stop others from seeking justice too.