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'Arrested. In a bus with great people!'

Arrested. In a bus with great people! #Azerbaijan #ProtestBaku

— Emin Milli (@eminmilli) January 26, 2013

So tweeted Azerbaijani writer and dissident @eminmilli on Saturday. He is now serving a 15-day prison sentence.

You can tell quite a lot about Emin Milli from just the 31 characters of that tweet. Someone who approaches life with real verve, he has a way with words.

Last April, Emin officially opened our National Conference. In a rousing speech, Emin told the assembled delegates “I decided to become a writer because our society needs words of truth and people who can stand behind their words.”

But speaking out in Azerbaijan, in any form, can be hazardous.

On Saturday, Emin was amongst more than 200 people who gathered in central Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, to demonstrate against the authorities’ violent dispersal of another, larger, protest which had taken place last week in the northern Azerbaijani city of Ismayili.

Following this peaceful demonstration in Baku, scores of protesters were detained, with 30 then charged. Court hearings were unfair, lasting just minutes and using court-appointed lawyers. 25 activists were handed heavy fines, and a further five were sentenced to prison – 15 days for Emin Milli, and 13 days each for Abulfaz Gurbanli, Rufat Abdullayev, Turkel Alisoy and Turkel Azerturk.

One of those arrested and put on trial was investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who was recently blackmailed and targeted in a smear campaign. She told us: “I was among the protesters in Sahil park [in central Baku]… The group of the police attacked just to take me….My trial was a comedy…..”.

Stifling dissent

Here at Amnesty we’ve long been concerned by the Azerbaijani authorities’ crackdown on freedoms of expression, association and assembly. If you followed our campaign around last year’s Eurovision Song Contest, you’ll know that those who exercise their rights to those freedoms in Azerbaijan often do so at a cost.

No stranger to imprisonment

Emin knew this only too well. He and his friend, youth activist Adnan Hajizade, spent 16 months in prison following their arrest in July 2009 on ‘hooliganism’ charges. We believe those charges were fabricated in response to their criticism of the Azerbaijani government. (Sound familiar? They’re trying the same tactic against activist Mehman Huseynov, currently facing up to five years’ imprisonment if convicted on bogus hooliganism charges)

The Council of Europe debates

The issue of politically motivated prosecutions in Azerbaijan has recently been the subject of debate in Strasbourg . I spent much of last Wednesday afternoon glued to my headphones listening to the discussion live-streamed from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). Call me a nerd if you will. But this is significant stuff.

Back in 2001, Azerbaijan was accepted as a member state of the Council of Europe on the condition that it would release all political prisoners and stop prosecuting its critics on politically motivated charges. The role of Rapporteurs for monitoring Azerbaijan’s progress on obligations to the Council is currently jointly held by two parliamentarians: Spanish Senator Pedro Agramunt, and Maltese MP Joseph Debono Grech.  In 2009, German MP Christoph Strässer, became the Rapporteur tasked with resolving the decade long problem of Azerbaijan’s political prisoners.  On Wednesday, he proposed a resolution calling on Azerbaijan to stop arresting and prosecuting peaceful protesters. Pedro Agramunt and Joseph Debono Grech opposed that resolution, stating that they would address this problem themselves. They even suggested it was nearly solved already.

Saturday’s arrests clearly show just how far the issue is from being resolved.

When Emin Milli joined the peaceful protest he knew the risk, but did it anyway – and I’m sure he would be the first to say that he is not unique. Many Azerbaijani men and women are choosing to run these risks rather than continue to live quietly in a society where they are unable to exercise their most basic human rights.

Our role is to stand up in defence of those rights.

We at Amnesty are calling on the Azerbaijani authorities to overturn the sentences of all those imprisoned or fined for taking part in the 26 January peaceful protest, and we urge the Council of Europe to intervene to ensure this.

What can you do?

  • Spread the word! Tweet to share our statement about Saturday’s events: Council of Europe @CoE must intervene to ensure sentences overturned of @eminmilli and other peaceful protesters in #Azerbaijan
  • Not on twitter? Show your support for free expression in Azerbaijan - post your comment here
About Amnesty UK Blogs
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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