Four years ago today, Azerbaijani authorities arrested Ilkin Rustamzade, a member of the pro-democracy NIDA youth group, blogger, and critic of the government’s abysmal human rights record. The anniversary of his arrest marks another grim milestone in relentless crackdown on critics in Azerbaijan.
The story of his arrest is as absurd as the charges authorities pressed against him. Police arrested him first on hooliganism charges for alleged involvement in a satirical Harlem Shake video, a minute-long comedy sketch filmed in a pedestrian area in central Baku that was posted to YouTube. But later, authorities charged him with inciting violence and organizing mass disorder, for a peaceful protest in March 2013. It had barely started when police violently broke it up. Eventually the authorities lost interest in the Harlem Shake video.
Before his arrest, Rustamzade, a 21-year-old university student, had been involved in peaceful protests, and served 15 days in administrative detention for participating in an unsanctioned peaceful rally.
After an unfair trial, a court sentenced him to eight years in prison in May 2014, with seven other members of NIDA. While all the others have been released – after some had written humiliating letters of repentance to President Ilham Aliyev – Rustamzade remains in prison, refusing to repent for crimes he did not commit.
Prison authorities put Rustamzade in solitary confinement at least twice in 2014, in apparent retaliation for his letters from prison critical of the government and his statement at the appeal hearing, where he reported abuses against other inmates.
Authorities continue to pressure Rustamzade. Less than two weeks ago, he told his lawyer, security officials visited him in his prison cell, and tried to convince him to become an informant for the State Security Service, if he ever wanted to be freed or get treatment for his failing health.
Rustamzade is one of dozens of political and youth activists who have been arrested on politically motivated criminal charges in Azerbaijan in recent years. Amnesty International has recognized Rustamzade as a prisoner of conscience.
Rustamzade’s been in prison for four years for crimes he didn’t commit. That’s exactly four years too long. He should be immediately freed and allowed to exercise his fundamental rights.