Two youth activists in Azerbaijan have accused police in the capital of beating them in an unsuccessful attempt to force them to confess to vandalizing a monument, and then charging the pair with bogus drug offenses when they didn't break.
International rights groups have condemned the authorities' treatment of Giyas Ibrahimov, 22, and Bayram Mammadov, 21, and demanded an investigation into the circumstances of the case.
The two were reportedly detained on May 10 on suspicion of painting graffiti on a statue of former Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev, father of the current leader, Ilham Aliyev.
They leveled their allegations in court testimony in the capital, Baku, on May 12, according to RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service.
The court sent the two to pretrial detention but ordered a probe into the police abuse allegations.
Human rights activists accuse authorities in Baku of routinely trumping up drug charges against activists in an effort to intimidate them.
"Ibrahimov and Mammadov are the latest blatant examples of this government tactic to suppress dissent," said Giorgi Gogia, South Caucasus director at Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Amnesty International has also condemned the arrest and alleged beatings, and called for the two to be examined by independent forensic experts to determine and document the nature of their injuries.
Baku has jailed dozens of political activists, human rights defenders, journalists, and other government critics over the past three years.
They include Khadija Ismayilova, a freelance journalist and frequent contributor to RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service. She is now serving a 7 1/2-year prison sentence on tax-evasion and embezzlement convictions that she and others say are punishment for her reports linking members of the presidential family to allegedly corrupt business practices.
'Little Has Changed'
In March, Azerbaijan released 16 jailed opposition politicians, journalists, and rights activists listed by human rights groups as "political prisoners."
But Levan Asatiani, a campaigner at Amnesty International focusing on Eurasia, told RFE/RL that the arrest of the two activists shows that little has changed.
"The recent arrest of Bayram Mammadov and Giyas Ibrahimov under exceptionally dubious circumstances is further proof that the government of Azerbaijan is far from actually changing its repressive practices," Asatiani said.
Mammadov is a member of NIDA (Azeri for exclamation mark), a youth opposition movement that is savvy with social media. Ibrahimov is from another leftist youth group, Solfront. Both are also studying at Baku Slavic University.
The two admitted in court to involvement in defacing the statue in the early hours of May 10. Pictures of the graffiti show the inscription "Happy Slave Day" in Azeri, a play on the phrase "Happy Flower Day."
Azerbaijan has celebrated Flower Day, which falls on the same day as Heidar Aliyev's birthday, every year since 2009. Ibrahimov was thought to have painted the graffiti while Mammadov was believed to have taken photos and posted them anonymously on social media.
Police said they identified the activists by examining footage from nearby closed-circuit television cameras.
Elchin Sadigov, the men's lawyer, said he was only allowed to meet with his clients shortly before they were taken to a pretrial hearing to be charged on May 12.
Sadigov said Ibrahimov and Mammadov were told by police that they would be released, but only if they publicly apologized on camera in front of the defaced monument.
They alleged that when they refused, police beat them, forced them to take their pants off, and threatened to rape them with truncheons and bottles if they did not confess to a new charge: drug possession.
The two men were said to have subsequently confessed to the drug charges before consulting with a lawyer.
Asatiani suggested narcotics charges are the preferred tool to clamp down on dissent.
"When we're talking about bloggers, or activists who work with social media, or political activists, with them the drug charge is very widely used. Amnesty International has been campaigning for NIDA members who have been arrested previously in Azerbaijan on similar charges, on drug charges," Asatiani said.
Sadigov said he saw police officers kick and humiliate his clients when they were forced to clean the police-station yard. Sadigov said he tried to intervene to stop the abuse, but police physically pushed him out of the station.
Sadigov said Ibrahimov and Mammadov had visible bruises, and both complained of bodily pain, especially in the head and abdomen. Mammadov had a large bruise and a scab near his right ear.
Authorities charged the two with possessing a cache of drugs with the intent to sell them. They said the narcotics were found at the activists' homes, which were searched by police while the two were being held in custody.
Sadigov said police prevented Mammadov's family from being present during the search and that Ibrahimov's mother claimed to have seen police plant drugs in her home.
In a statement, the Interior Ministry said police found 2.9 grams of heroin on Mammadov and more than a kilogram at his house. Police found 2.6 grams on Ibrahimov and more than a kilogram in his apartment, according to the statement.
Case 'Full Of Holes'
Asatiani said the case against the two is filled with holes.
"The witnesses who are actually part of the search for the drugs, they are not independent witnesses but are actually employed by the Azerbaijani police or are working informally with the police. And this is the practice which Amnesty International has seen in previous cases of detaining activists in Azerbaijan," Asatiani said.
At the hearing on May 12, Ibrahimov said their confessions their confessions were coerced and told the judge they had painted the graffiti. He also told the court they were beaten after refusing to apologize at the monument in exchange for their freedom.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have called for the drug charges to be dropped.
Human Rights Watch is also teaming up with Sports for Rights to appeal to Formula 1 chief Bernie Ecclestone to speak out against the human rights crackdown in Azerbaijan and call for the release of the country's jailed journalists.
Azerbaijan will host its first Formula One European Grand Prix race as well as practice runs and qualifiers on June 17-19 in the capital, Baku.
Baku has been eager to host a number of high-profile sports and other events in recent years, including the inaugural European Games in 2015.
Jane Buchanan, director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch, said that the "Formula One leadership has a crucial opportunity to press the Azerbaijani government to make concrete steps to improve its human rights record ahead of the Baku Grand Prix." She added, "If it remains silent, Formula One risks condoning the government's efforts to benefit from the prestige of international events, while silencing domestic critics, without consequences."