Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Calls for Release of Azeri Facebook Activist

Police use drug charges to detain web poster who called for Egypt-style protests.
By Samira Ahmedbeyli
  • Youth activist Jabbar Savalan. (Photo: J. Savalan)
    Youth activist Jabbar Savalan. (Photo: J. Savalan)

The authorities in Azerbaijan are facing mounting criticism over the arrest of an opposition activist who posted anti-government messages on Facebook.

Jabbar Savalan, a 20-year-old member of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan, was arrested in Sumgait, near the capital Baku, on February 5 after returning home from a party meeting.

Savalan was charged with illegal possession of narcotics, and the interior ministry press service said he had confessed to carrying 0.74 grams of marijuana.

His lawyer Askhabali Mustafayev said police pressured Savalan into signing the confession. He retracted it two days later when his lawyer finally gained access, saying police planted the drugs in his pocket while detaining him.

Mustafayev has requested an independent forensic drug test on his client.

Savalan’s mother, Taravat Aliyeva, who is dean of history at Sumgait State University, where he is a student, insisted her son did not use drugs. She has been denied access to him during his time in custody and has only been able to communicate with him through his lawyer.

Savalan was arrested the day after he posted a message on his Facebook page saying Azerbaijan needed pro-democracy protests like those taking place in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries. He also posted a copy of an article from a Turkish newspaper criticising Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev.

Fellow-members of the Popular Front noted that he had participated in an anti-government demonstration on January 20.

The international watchdog group Amnesty International issued a press release expressing concern that the drugs charges were "a pretext to punish [him] for his political activism and to discourage other youth activists from exercising their right to freedom of expression".

John Dalhuisen, deputy director of Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia programme, suggested that Savalan’s internet presence had also drawn the authorities’ ire.

"The authorities have already effectively muzzled much of the mainstream media,” he said in the press release. “By clamping down on online activism, they are silencing one of the few remaining platforms for the open discussion of critical views in Azerbaijan."

The case has focused attention once again on the increasing restrictions placed on freedom of expression in Azerbaijan.

Outspoken critics of President Aliyev are routinely silenced with arrests and independent media outlets censored.

Two Azerbaijani bloggers, Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli, received international attention when they were jailed on disputed charges after writing pro-democracy articles. They were released in November last year after spending 17 months in prison. (See Freed Azeri Bloggers Promise to Fight On.)

Abulfaz Qurbanli, who chairs the Popular Front Party’s youth wing, said the latest arrest fitted a pattern of repression targeting internet-based political activism.

“Look at the hits on Savalan’s Facebook page, and you will understand the real motives behind his arrest,” Qurbanli said. "Drugs are just an excuse, if a rather absurd excuse. They want to frighten young people who are politically active.”

In a related incident, another young Popular Front member in Sumgait, Elchin Hasanov, was summoned by police on February 9 after posting Facebook messages calling for action in support of Savalan. Police questioned him and demanded that he withdraw his statements and apologise, but Hasanov refused to do so.

The interior ministry insisted that Savalan had not been arrested because of his political stance.

“He’s only 20 years old – is he well-known political figure?” Orhan Mansurzade, a ministry press officer, said. “The police are not interested in his political views. If he’s committed a crime, he should be held accountable regardless of his party membership.”

As a court issued a two-month custody order pending an investigation of the case, the Popular Front’s youth wing, the Free Youth group and others began campaigning for Savalan’s release.

Samira Ahmedbeyli is a staff writer for IWPR in Azerbaijan.