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Youth activist Cabbar Savalan
After nearly a year and a half, a new U.S. ambassador has finally taken up residence in Baku.

Matthew Bryza, a career diplomat and longtime friend of the region, became the seventh U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan last December.

Upon arriving in Baku on February 6, Bryza declared he was looking forward to helping to deepen cooperation between the U.S. and Azerbaijan and strengthen Azerbaijan’s “democratic institutions.”

It’s not clear how deep this cooperation is going to go, but Bryza’s timing is perfect. His arrival has coincided with a renewed government crackdown on youth activists.

Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, a Harvard grad and a former candidate for the national parliament, is stranded in his hometown of Ganja after the authorities tried to draft him into the army in an apparent violation of a constitutional provision allowing alternative military service.

Hajiyev was first detained in November when he wanted to go to Georgia to finish a doctoral degree. To his surprise he was barred from leaving the country.

Authorities said Hajiyev had been evading military service since 2006 and was wanted by the police. Hajiyev, on the other hand, pointed out that he freely ran for parliament and even appeared in a televised debate.

Hajiyev is refusing to go to the army and has demanded alternative military service. The authorities have a long history of conscripting activists and are firm in their intentions.

Since then, a criminal case has been opened up against Hajiyev and he must now report twice a day to local police in Ganja.

Yet, he can be considered lucky compared with another young activist, 20-year-old Cabbar Savalan.

Police detained Savalan, from the opposition Popular Front party's youth wing, in his hometown of Sumgayit on February 5. He has been charged with allegedly possessing opium, but Savalan’s supporters claim that the drugs were planted by the police themselves. Savalan doesn't even smoke, his friends say.

Unlike Hajiyev, who has been prominent in youth politics since the mid-2000s, Savalan is relatively new to the field. It’s only been three months since he joined the Popular Front's youth group. Therefore, the harshness of the accusation and the two-month pre-trial detention he got on February 7 raises an interesting question: why crack down on a 20-year-old newcomer?

Abulfaz Gurbanli, the head of the Popular Front's youth wing, thinks the government has had enough of the scandals that come with arresting prominent youth leaders, so they are now targeting newcomers. There are fewer headaches involved, and besides, arresting newcomers effectively bars young people from joining “unwanted” groups.

Though Savalan was a newcomer, he had eagerly taken part in various protest actions and was active on Facebook. Following events in Tunisia and Egypt, he had even started to advocate holding an Azeri “Day of Rage.”

According to Parvana Persiani, a researcher with the Baku-based AN think tank, there may lie yet another answer. Savalan's sudden arrest may be more about teaching a lesson to those young people in Azerbaijan inspired by current events in Arab world.

-- Ali Novruzov
Hikmatullo Saifullozoda (right) pictured here in 2008
DUSHANBE -- A leading figure in Tajikistan's Islamic opposition party has been hospitalized after being beaten up on his way to work, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reports.

Hikmatullo Saifullozoda, a member of the Islamic Renaissance Party's (IRP) political council and editor in chief of its newspaper, "Najot," was attacked this morning on his way to the newspaper's office in Dushanbe.

Saifullozoda, an outspoken critic of the government, said he was set upon by two assailants after a third person approached him and attempted to distract him.

He suffered a blow to the skull and severe bruising around his eyes and mouth. He is being treated in a Dushanbe hospital.

The ruling People's Democratic Party described the attack as a "wrongful act."

Hikmatullo Saifullozoda suffered a blow to the skull and severe bruising around his eyes and mouth.
Usmon Soleh, head of the party's public relations department, told RFE/RL that the incident was unfortunate, adding that "threatening and using force against someone" is not a solution to issues.

Soleh said law enforcement agencies would deal with the incident.

The IRP leadership said it had called an urgent meeting to discuss the attack, adding that it hoped Saifullozoda's assailants would be brought to justice.

Party deputy head Saidumar Husaini informed the interior minister by phone about the attack, but the party said it had not yet officially asked the authorities to investigate.

Another IRP deputy head, Mukhammadali Haiit, told RFE/RL that the attack was an attempt on Saifullozoda's life. He said Saifullozoda's neighbors had spoken of having seen people following him in recent days.

Saifullozoda is also a political analyst with the Dushanbe think tank Dialog.

Read more in Tajik here

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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