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Azerbaijan Detention Could Hint At Post-Eurovision Crackdown

Azerbaijani photojournalist Mehman Huseynov
Azerbaijani photojournalist Mehman Huseynov
BAKU -- When the popular Eurovision song contest was held in the Azerbaijani capital last month, opposition activists viewed it as a golden opportunity to focus international attention on the country's sullied human rights record.

Now that Eurovision is over and the world's attention has turned elsewhere, the same activists fear the government of President Ilham Aliyev is looking for revenge.

On June 12, photographer and Facebook activist Mehman Huseynov was summoned to a Baku police station. After three hours of interrogation, police decided to hold him, pending the filing of charges of disturbing public order and disobeying police.

Interior Ministry spokesman Orkhan Mansurzade told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service that Huseynov resisted police during an unsanctioned opposition demonstration on May 21, during the Eurovision contest.

"[Huseynov] grossly violated public order [and] openly disrespected society by using abusive language against police officials," Mansurzade said. "He committed hooligan acts. Criminal proceedings were launched against Mehman Huseynov on May 29 on charges of hooliganism."

'One Should Not Be Silent'

If convicted, Huseynov could face up to a year in prison.

His brother Emin, head of the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS), said Mehman Huseynov was being targeted because of his role in a protest called Sing For Democracy, which was timed to coincide with Eurovision.

"Mehman Huseynov thinks his detention is connected with his journalistic activity and his participation in the pre-Eurovision Sing For Democracy human rights campaign," Emin Huseynov said. "He also said his arrest is a political order coming from the presidential administration. He does not exclude that President Aliyev might personally stand behind the arrest."

WATCH: RFE/RL Azerbaijani Service footage of Huseynov reporting to a Baku police station and being taken into detention on June 12:

Mehman Huseynov Taken Into Custody
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The Huseynov brothers attracted attention during Eurovision when Swedish diva Loreen, who went on to win the competition, visited them at the IRFS offices on May 25 and told journalists: "Human rights are violated in Azerbaijan every day. One should not be silent about such things."

Swelling Ranks

Huseynov is not the only opposition activist to have been targeted by the authorities since Eurovision left Baku.

Also on June 13, Natiq Adilov, a journalist and press spokesman for the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (APFP), was summoned by police and interrogated about a May 24 protest in front of Azerbaijan's state Public Television center. Adilov maintains he was covering the event as a journalist but told RFE/RL that police accused him of "calling for mass demonstrations."

Adilov was released after police advised him to quit the APFP and stop his "antigovernment activity."

These developments come one week after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Baku and urged Aliyev's government to respect human rights. She met with prominent opposition activist Baxtiyar Haciyev, who was released from prison just two days earlier. He had been jailed on charges of evading compulsory military service that his colleagues say were prompted by his political activity.

Clinton praised Haciyev's pro-democracy work and said she hoped he "will be able to continue his work without interference."

Not Entirely Unexpected

The Azerbaijani authorities appeared to telegraph their intention to move against pro-democracy activists just days after Eurovision's May 26 finale.

Speaking at a conference of pro-government NGOs, presidential adviser Ali Hasanov lambasted the opposition for presenting Azerbaijan in a bad light.

"Those opposition activists, journalists, newspapers should not dare appear in society. They should be ashamed to appear in the streets. I am not saying we have to move against them," Hasanov said.

"But public hatred should be demonstrated against them so that they understand that when foreign journalists come, they should not show them the ruined asphalt in some microdistrict. Instead, they should take the foreigners to a camp for displaced persons [from the Nagorno-Karabakh region]."

Robert Coalson contributed to this story

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