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Azerbaijan's Pre-Election Crackdown on Dissent: Why I'm Taking It Personally

Posted: 07/10/2013 18:16

When I was 17, I was arrested while peacefully participating in a protest. So when I heard that 17-year-old Azerbaijani activist Shahin Novruzlu had been arrested, it really struck a chord with me. But the similarities start and end there.

I spent a few hours in a police station cell and was then released with a caution for "wilful obstruction of a public highway". Life carried on. I passed my A-levels, graduated from university, fell in love. I've participated in many more peaceful protests, and even organised a few. And I've celebrated every one of my birthdays since, with people I love.

Shahin Novruzlu was arrested on 7 March this year - without explanation and without being read his rights. Seven months later he is still in detention and is now facing a possible 12-year prison sentence. He has already turned 18 while in detention - and if he is convicted he may not celebrate another birthday in freedom before he is 30.

He's another prisoner of conscience in Azerbaijan's crackdown on dissent which has intensified ahead of the country's Presidential elections on Wednesday.

Shahin Novruzlu is a member of the pacifist pro-democracy youth group NIDA. Six other NIDA activists - Mahammad Azizov, Bakhtiyar Guliyev, Rashad Hasanov, Uzeyir Mammadli, Rashadat Akhundov, and Zaur Gurbanli - all aged between 20- 28, have also been arrested between 8 March and 1 April. Another activist, Ilkin Rustamzade, 21, from the "Free Youth" movement, was arrested on 17 May. The eight were variously charged with possession of drugs and explosives, and hooliganism - and then on 12 September they were all additionally charged with planning to organise acts of public disorder, which carries a sentence of up to 12 years' imprisonment.

All eight activists deny the charges against them, and we at Amnesty believe they have actually been detained in retaliation for their human rights or political activism. They have done nothing more than peacefully exercise their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly - and so we consider them all to be prisoners of conscience and we're calling for their immediate and unconditional release.

Unfortunately, these eight are far from being a unique case. The crackdown on these fundamental freedoms in Azerbaijan has long been of deep concern - and now we fear that the authorities have become increasingly bold in their repression of dissent ahead of the 9 October Presidential election.

President Ilham Aliyev, running for a third consecutive term, has, since succeeding his father Heydar in 2003, presided over a deepening human rights crisis in the country. Criticism of the President and leading government figures is frequently punished - those who use their right to free speech find that it can cost them their liberty, their physical safety, or their privacy.

Yet despite knowing the grave consequences they can face for speaking out, Azerbaijani women and men are choosing to run those risks rather than to continue to live in a society where they cannot exercise their most basic human rights.

Which brings me back to where I began. I initially identified with Shahin Novruzlu because I too had been arrested at the age of 17. I was demonstrating for a cause I passionately believed in - but would I have been there if I thought I stood to lose out on all that the next 12 years offered? I would like to think that I would be that brave, but in my heart I can't be so sure.

What I can be sure of is that I want to use my right to free speech to stand up for those who are suffering the consequences of using theirs. You can join me by writing to the Azerbaijani authorities to urge the release of Shahin Novruzlu and all prisoners of conscience - now. Thank you.

 

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