"Social networkers are mentally ill," says host nation of Global Internet Forum

While the global focus today will undoubtedly be on the presidential elections in the United States, in Baku events are unfolding that could also influence the daily lives of everyone on the planet – the Azerbaijani capital is hosting this year’s UN Internet Governance Forum.

Set up by the United Nations in 2006, the annual forum is a bit of a mix bag of seminars and discussions that help map out the legal restrictions and future direction of the internet. It runs from today until Friday. There is little doubt that the power of the web has played a huge role in human rights over the last few years – you only have to cast your eyes back to the Arab Spring or even the images coming out of Syria in the last few days as evidence of that.

Among the topics under discussion at the forum is the importance of freedom of expression, which makes the choice of Baku as the host city for this year’s event significant to say the least. Azerbaijan is hardly famed for free speech. After all, it is a legal requirement there for all telecommunications companies to allow the government to enable “operational search, intelligence and counter-intelligence activities” – nothing like a wire tap to aid free speech.

To highlight the problems, we’ve put together a new briefing called Azerbaijan: Human Rights Abuses Under the E-spotlight. The briefing runs through several key cases where people have been persecuted for their web activities and also unpicks the oppressive system of internet surveillance in the country.

Max Tucker, our Azerbaijan campaigner, is also quoted in the briefing. Max is a true gem when it comes to describing complex issues succinctly – and definitely one for the media to interview. Anyway, he sums up the concerns in the country brilliantly in the briefing. “There is a deep irony,” he says, “to holding an international forum on internet governance in Azerbaijan. This is a country where the government intercepts individuals’ correspondence at a whim, imprisons bloggers, and portrays social-networkers as mentally ill.” Well put Mr Tucker.

Of course, Azerbaijan has already enjoyed a turn on the international stage this year, when it hosted the Eurovision Song Contest in May. On that occasion, local activists took advantage of the attention to highlight human rights concerns in the country to a wider audience. Since then, and following a decrease in media attention post-Eurovision, these activists have started to be targeted, being harassed by police and arrested on bogus charges. Simply put, critics of the President Ilham Aliyev, his family or government, risk being threatened, attacked or imprisoned – whether they do so on- or off-line.

Mehman HuseynovTake the case of 23-year-old Human rights defender Mehman Huseynov. He has been charged of ‘hooliganism’ and faces five years in prison. Amnesty believes this charge was fabricated to punish Mehman for using Eurovision to highlight human rights concerns to international media. Mehman was a member of the group which met with Swedish Eurovision competitor and eventual winner, Loreen, prompting her to speak out about Azerbaijan’s human rights problems. The charge against Mehman relates to an incident during a protest he was covering as a journalist on 21 May. Eyewitnesses told Amnesty that police officers deliberately smashed the cameras of Huseynov and a colleague, after which he swore at the officers. Under Azerbaijani law, hooliganism is a criminal offence only when it involves violence. Five of the officers have testified that Huseynov not only swore, but acted “violently” – though they gave no further details. Two witnesses testify that he did nothing violent, and video footage of the incident appears to support their accounts. Arrested on 12 June, Mehman was released on bail the following evening, but the trial is ongoing.

On top of that Mehman’s photographs of peaceful protests being violently dispersed in Baku have been disseminated widely by international media and on social networks. In March 2011 he was arrested and interrogated about his Facebook activity while he was working as a cameraman for Amnesty.
Naturally, we’re calling on the Azerbaijani authorities to end the crackdown on dissent and to ensure that all citizens are able to enjoy their fundamental rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association. You can take action for Mehman here – and share it on Twitter and Facebook – just be grateful that won’t result in you getting jailed for it, yet…

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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