The photos were posted May 10 on Haqqin.az, a news website run by former jailed Azerbaijani journalist Eynulla Fatullayev.
The activists, two of whom have already been released, have called the photos a “provocation” and an act aimed at discrediting them.
The three are Abulfaz Qurbanli, head of the opposition Azerbaijani Popular Front Party’s youth wing; Turgut Gambar, a member of NIDA, a youth opposition movement active on social media and son of opposition Musavat party leader Isa Gambar; and Ilkin Rustamzadeh, a member of the Free Youth organization.
Qurbanli and Gambar were released on May 10. Rustamzadeh is still serving his 15-day sentence and is scheduled to be released on May 15.
In a statement on May 13, more than 30 civil society activists expressed their objections to the photos' publication, decrying the violation of the detained activists’ rights. They say that the photos were posted online with the intent of discrediting the activists.
Qurbanli said they were not aware they were being photographed.
Haqqin.az claims the photos were initially published on pro-government websites that had “mocked” the activists, but RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service could not find the photos posted on any other websites.
Vugar Mammadov, a spokesman for Azerbaijan’s ombudsman, has appealed to the Interior Ministry for an explanation.
“These pictures could not have been taken by someone from outside,” Mammadov said.
The youth activists were detained on April 30 at a protest marking the fourth anniversary of a shooting spree at Azerbaijan’s State Oil Academy.
The photos' publication sparked an outcry on Facebook, though many users also pointed out that there is nothing shameful about cleaning toilets. Some users shared photos of themselves cleaning their own toilets.
Fatullayev, who runs Haqqin.az, spent four years in jail on charges his supporters say were related to his journalistic work before he was released from prison by a presidential pardon in 2011.
Earlier this year, Amnesty International cut ties with Fatullayev after he “misled the organization about the source of funding for a project.”
Fatullayev has increasingly been siding with the Azerbaijani government. In a March 10 article, he accused the head of the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute (NDI), Alex Grigorievs, of aiming to fund a “Facebook revolution” in Azerbaijan. His article went viral on pro-government media sites.
Azerbaijan has stepped up its crackdown on activists and NGOs ahead of the October presidential election. On May 10, four local residents were sentenced to 10 days in prison for participating in an unsanctioned protest in Azerbaijan’s northeastern town of Xudat.
-- Written by Deana Kjuka based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service