If you didn’t know any better, you’d think that dissidents in much of the former Soviet Union were a bunch of foul-mouthed junkie pornographers.
In March, police in Azerbaijan arrested Mahammad Azizov on drugs charges. A few weeks later, they picked up Dashgin Malikov. Days later, Taleh Bagirov was nabbed. On May 9, it was Rashad Ramazonov's turn.
What all these young men have in common, besides denying the charges, is their outspoken criticism of the government of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. Azizov and Malikov belong to opposition groups. Bagirov is an imam who gave a sermon criticizing Aliyev days before his arrest. Ramazanov is an opposition blogger.
Rounding up opposition activists on odd and often spurious charges, drug-related or otherwise, is not unique to Azerbaijan. From Russia to Ukraine to Belarus, activists have been charged with crimes ranging from distributing pornography to smuggling caviar to cursing in public.
Heather McGill is a researcher for the London-based rights group Amnesty International.
She maintains that the prosecution of activists under various nonpolitical charges complicates the work of organizations such as hers as they try to identify and defend political prisoners. The tactic also provides political cover for authoritarian regimes, she says, as "governments are very keen to claim that they don’t have political prisoners."
"If you claim somebody has committed a criminal offense, then it makes it harder for people to defend that person," she says. "It just makes the case more complex for us and we need to be very, very careful in researching whether that person has in fact done what the authorities claim they have."
In a report issued this week, Human Rights Watch (HRW) charged that the Azerbaijan detentions are “part of an intensified campaign against [government] critics as elections grow near.” The country’s presidential election is scheduled for October 16.
Journalists Jailed Every Year
Baku-based human rights activist Leyla Yunus agrees with HRW’s conclusions.
“There has not been a single year in the last 20 when no journalist was jailed," she says. "They are detained either for carrying drugs or on defamation charges. Now we see the repressions increasing as the elections approach. More journalists are being jailed.”
Over the last couple of years in Azerbaijan, satirist Mirza Sakit, journalist Eynulla Fatullayev, and activist Jabbar Savalan were all jailed for possession of drugs.
The epidemic of alleged drug use among opposition political figures is by no means limited to Azerbaijan. In 2010, Russian activist and artist Taisiya Osipova was arrested after police allegedly found four grams of heroin in her Smolensk home. She claims the drugs were planted because she refused to provide information against her husband, Sergei Fomchenkov, a leader of the Other Russia opposition movement.
Osipova’s case is unusual because a court sentenced her to eight years in prison, even though prosecutors had only sought a four-year term. After a court in 2012 denied Osipova’s appeal, Fomchenkov told RFE/RL that the case is entirely political.
"I said that the ruling would be political and that it would be as harsh as it could be," he said. "Of course, no one expected the court would sentence her to twice as long -- eight years. After the sentencing, I became completely pessimistic and I think, first, the decision is political and that it was made at the very highest levels of government."
In March, a court in Ufa, the capital of the Russian region of Bashkortostan, sentenced Fanzil Akhmetshin to 4 1/2 years in prison for drug trafficking after Federal Security Service (FSB) officers allegedly found opium in his suitcase when he was returning from a trip to Somalia. Akhmetshin is deputy chairman of the World Bashkir Assembly, which promotes Bashkir culture and ethnic identity.
Akhmetshin was in Somalia to check on how money raised by Bashkir organizations to help displaced Somalis was being spent. The work was organized by the Turkey-based Foundation for Human Rights, Freedom, and Humanitarian Relief (IHH).
IHH spokesman Samet Dogan told RFE/RL in January 2012 that Akhmetshin noted that Russian officials found just 1.5 grams of heroin.
"Drug smugglers don’t carry such tiny amounts,” Dogan said. “This looks like a provocation. It seems like the authorities decided to stop his public activities through this classic technology."
"Smuggling" landed St. Petersburg Other Russia activist Olga Kurnosova in hot water in 2008. She was briefly detained for allegedly "receiving illegal goods" when authorities found a can of caviar on her when she was returning from a seminar for democracy advocates in the southern Russian city of Astrakhan.
In other former Soviet countries, activists have been arrested and imprisoned on similarly questionable charges, ranging from weapons possession to pornography to disobeying police.
In December 2010, the coordinator of Ukraine’s Vinnytsya Human Rights Group, Dmytro Groisman, was arrested on charges of distributing pornography and offending state symbols over satirical postings on his blog. His case is still pending and he could face up to seven years in prison.
Detained For 'Swearing In Public'
Groisman told RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service that the investigation brought the work of his NGO to a standstill.
"Under the pretext of fighting so-called pornography and offending the state flag, [the police] came to the office, confiscated all our documents, including files on refugees, which were the confidential information of the UN agency on refugees, and paralyzed the work of our organization for about six months," he said.
Numerous other Ukrainian activists have been charged with hooliganism and other petty crimes in recent months.
And earlier this month, Belarusian journalists Alyaksandr Yarashevich and Dzmitry Halko were given brief jail sentences on charges of hooliganism and disobedience for interviewing opposition activists as they were being released from police custody.
Last year Aleh Volchek, the former head of a Belarusian NGO, which provided legal assistance until it was liquidated in 2003, was given nine days of administrative detention for "swearing in public." He believes the charges were trumped up in response to an article he published three days earlier in which he criticized police for beating demonstrators.
Some of the cases seem almost comical, but the consequences can be anything but trivial. Sergei Fomchenkov has given up any hope that appeals for parole or leniency will do any good for his wife Taisiya.
“They are ready to kill her in prison," he says. "And they won’t let her out no matter what.”
RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani, Tatar-Bashkir, Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarus services contributed to this report.