The United States is urging authorities in Azerbaijan to conduct a transparent investigation into the death of an Azerbaijani blogger following his arrest on drug-trafficking charges that rights activists contend were fabricated.
"The United States notes with deep concern the death of Azerbaijani blogger and activist Mehman Qalandarov on April 28 while in the custody of Azerbaijani authorities," the State Department said in a statement on May 3.
"We urge the government of Azerbaijan to conduct a full, transparent, and independent investigation into the circumstances of Mr. Qalandarov's death and to release all activists in Azerbaijan incarcerated for exercising their fundamental freedoms," it said.
The Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS), an Azerbaijani NGO, reported on April 29 that Qalandarov "appears to have hanged himself" at the Baku detention center where he was being held. But it quoted human rights defender Oqtay Gulaliyev as saying that that the circumstances of his death were murky.
The IRFS quoted Gulaliyev as saying that Qalandarov was a government critic and had repeatedly called for the release of imprisoned opposition activists Bayram Mammadov and Qiyas Ibrahimov.
Mammadov and Ibrahimov were arrested in May 2016, after painting "Happy Slaves' Day" on a monument to late President Heidar Aliyev in Baku on May 9 -- celebrated in several former Soviet republics as the anniversary of victory in World War II -- and were both sentenced to 10 years in prison on drug charges.
Both men said they were innocent, and Mammadov said he was tortured into confessing.
Qalandarov worked as a teacher at the College of Philosophy, Sociology, and Political Science in Baku for over a decade, according to the IRFS.
Heidar Aliyev's son, Ilham Aliyev, has ruled the oil-producing Caspian Sea state since he was elected shortly before his father's death in 2003.
He has shrugged off frequent criticism from rights groups and Western governments that say he has jailed critics on false pretenses and abused power to crush dissent.