Baku: Azerbaijan has arrested five young democracy activists for trying to organise a nationwide day of protest in the ex-Soviet state through the Facebook social network, the opposition said on Wednesday.
The “Great People’s Day in Azerbaijan”, called for Thursday, is an attempt by activists in the tightly controlled Muslim-majority country to latch on to the mood of revolt sweeping through the Arab world.
However the authorities have made clear they will not tolerate even small-scale unsanctioned protests and have arrested leading activists on what the opposition claims are spurious charges.
“A campaign of young activists’ arrests is under way. The authorities are using illegal methods to suppress the opposition,” Isa Gambar, the leader of the opposition Musavat party, said.
He said five young activists, Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, Sakhavat Soltanli, Jabar Savalan, Dayanat Babaev, and Rasadat Akhundov, have been arrested so far, under “ridiculous accusations of hooliganism”, such as speaking loudly on the telephone in a public place.
Hajiyev, who was sentenced on March 04 for one month in prison, has already been arrested twice in recent months. Babayev, an activist from the opposition National Front party, was arrested on Monday, followed by the arrest of his fellow Soltanli and independent activist Akhundov on Tuesday.
Savalan was arrested in February in the city of Sumgayit for alleged drugs possession.
Amnesty International has called on Azerbaijan to “stop this crackdown immediately and allow activists to organise peaceful protests”.
In a statement issued after Hajiyev’s arrest, the US Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Matthew Bryza, said he would “continue to monitor closely this case and the cases of other recently arrested youth activists”.
Azerbaijan’s Turan news agency reported that Hajiyev went on hunger strike and claimed he has been tortured in prison. “They were twisting my arms, beating me with fists, insulting me,” he said in a letter quoted by the agency.
Just before his first arrest, Hajiyev stood as an independent candidate in Parliamentary Elections in November 2010, during which he criticised the Azerbaijani authorities and described the polls as rigged.
“Bakhtiyar Hajiyev has been continually harassed solely for peacefully expressing his views,” said Amnesty International.
Western observers assessed the vote as flawed, but President Ilham Aliyev’s ruling party, which won a landslide victory, insisted that the election had “conformed to European standards”.
Local media said Hajiyev was listed as one of the creators of a Facebook page talking of a “people’s revolution” in Azerbaijan.
The group’s page on Facebook, the online social networking site used extensively in the revolt that toppled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, says “we are on the road of democracy and intend to follow this road till the end”.
Energy-rich Azerbaijan has been courted by foreign governments as a source of oil and gas supplies, but critics have accused the West of tempering criticism of rights abuses in order to safeguard their economic interests in the Caspian Sea state.
Masters of vast Caspian oil wealth, the Aliyev family has ruled Azerbaijan since 1993.