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What's Behind The Latest Jailing Of An Azerbaijani Blogger?

Azerbaijani activist Zaur Gurbanli (right) at a rally in 2011
Azerbaijani activist Zaur Gurbanli (right) at a rally in 2011
BAKU -- Zaur Qurbanli has become the latest blogger to get into trouble with the Azerbaijani authorities.

Qurbanli has long been critical of the authorities in Baku, and in recent months the 25-year-old activist has been particularly busy.

He was part of the Sing for Democracy campaign, which brought international media attention to the issue of human rights in Azerbaijan during the Eurovision contest in May. Among its successes was persuading the winner of the contest, the Swedish pop singer Loreen, to publicly condemn rights abuses in Azerbaijan.

He posted a blog criticizing education officials for including a poem by President Ilham Aliyev's elder daughter, Layla, in the elementary-school curriculum. The poem, "Elegiya," was dedicated to her late grandfather, former President Heydar Aliyev.

"This is the poetry of the daughter of the dictator Ilham Aliyev. Look what we are coming to. This is the method of poisoning our children. We should protest as much as we can," Qurbanli wrote of the poem.

Qurbanli also helped organize a leaflet campaign calling on Azerbaijanis to vote Aliyev out of office in next year's presidential election. The leaflet, from the youth opposition group Nida, where Qurbanli is a board member, features a silhouette of Aliyev in profile and the words, "I will go in 2013 if you join Nida."

Now, it seems, the Azerbaijani government has had enough.

On September 29, plainclothes policemen seized Qurbanli outside Nida's headquarters in Baku and escorted back inside. There, they searched the premises and confiscated documents, including some of the 2013 election leaflets.

'Resisting Arrest'

The plainclothes policemen identified themselves to Qubanli's co-workers only as officers from the Department for Combating Organized Crime before taking Qurbanli off to an unknown destination.

Qurbanli was then kept incommunicado for the rest of the day before he was finally allowed to contact his lawyer on October 1.

He has been charged with resisting the police, which is enough to keep him in detention for 15 days.

An official of the Interior Ministry suggested that more charges might soon be filed against Qurbanli. The official, Orxan Mansurzadeh, told RFE/RL that Qurbanli was detained in connection with allegedly illegal drug activities and that "illegal documents and objects" were found in his office. The official declined to specify the nature of those documents.

Nida calls the arrest an effort by authorities to silence criticism.

"The authorities are trying to frighten youth organizations, [even those] which are not political party affiliates, to combat them," said Turqut Qambar, a Nida representative. "The authorities want to frighten this independent sector."

Containing The Crackdown

Qurbanli's lawyer, Ashabali Mustafayev, said he was seeking to limit the blogger's detention to just the current 15-day sentence, although he declined to disclose the detains of how he would do so.

"There are factors which I cannot discuss as a lawyer," Mustafayev said, "because our intention is to limit his sentence to 15 days."

Amnesty International on October 2 condemned Qurbanli's arrest and called for his release. "Azerbaijani opposition activists are routinely detained on the pretext of resisting police, giving the authorities 15 days to try to build a case against them," John Dalhuisen, the group's director for Europe and Central Asia, said.

The young blogger's arrest recalls earlier crackdowns on bloggers in Azerbaijan who have dared to criticize the government.

In 2009, authorities sentenced two men to terms of two years and 2 1/2 years respectively on charges that they had started a brawl in a restaurant.

The cases of Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade -- who came to be known as the "donkey bloggers" -- created an international outcry because both were convicted after satirizing the government with an Internet video showing a donkey giving a press conference.

Both men were released early in November 2010 after serving 17 months in prison.

Written by Charles Recknagel in Prague, based on reporting by RFE/RL Azerbaijan Service correspondent Arife Kazimova in Baku

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