Last month, Azerbaijan's president, Ilham Aliyev, said his country could serve as an example of national and religious tolerance to the world. "Everyone," he said, "lives like one family in Azerbaijan." Not Eynulla Fatullayev, though.
Fatullayev, a crusading journalist and newspaper editor, was arrested in 2007 on charges of tax evasion, instigation of terror, and defamation. He claims the charges were related to his articles he had written critical of the authorities. In 2007, he was handed an 8 1/2 year jail term.
Two years earlier, in 2005, another prominent Azerbaijani journalist, Elmar Huseynov, was gunned down outside his apartment. The murder case, which Fatullayev was investigating before his imprisonment, remains unsolved.
The U.K.-based Amnesty International has just launched a smart Twitter campaign
, led by some prominent British media personalities holding up signs calling for Fatullayev's release.
It's more than likely the campaign will fall on deaf ears. The Azerbaijani government has ignored repeated calls to end Fatullayev's imprisonment, including a 2010 ruling from the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights that he should be released and paid 25,000 euros in compensation.
The prosecution and imprisonment of Fatullayev is symptomatic of the overall disregard the Aliyev regime has for independent media and human rights. According to Freedom House's annual survey of the press
, "In Azerbaijan, the state and ruling party dominate the media landscape, and independent journalists and bloggers continue to face legal and physical harassment for expressing dissenting views."
Like Iran, Azerbaijan has a young, restless, and digitally savvy population. (Check out the satirical news show
produced by our Azerbaijani Service, which has proved hugely popular.) The government usually counters with traditional means: imprisoning the infamous "donkey bloggers" and beating activists at demos.
But increasingly, government-friendly groups are taking digital countermeasures. In a post on Global Voices
, Onnik Krikorian points out how IRELI, Azerbaijan's state-funded equivalent of the pro-Putin youth movement Nashi, has been attempting to control the discourse by accusing the West of double standards "in order to drown out alternative voices." One common refrain was Western hypocrisy in failing to highlight the plight of Azerbaijani journalists killed in the war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.
The pro-government countermeasures even included retouching the photos of the prominent Brits so that their signs read "Azerbaijan is not USSR! No double standards" instead of "Free Eynulla Fatullayev."
Ironically, their invocation of the Soviet Union and supposed Western double standards is reminiscent of the Soviet-era practice of "whataboutism" (nicely deconstructed
here by "The Economist's" Ed Lucas.) Essentially the argument boils down to, yes, we have a journalist imprisoned, but what about Guantanamo, or the slaughter of the Native Americans, or Gaza?
After winning this year's Eurovision, Azerbaijan will host next year's song contest. There are already calls
for it to improve its rights record. Let's hope Eynulla Fatullayev can watch it as a free man.
-- Luke Allnutt