MEHMAN HUSEYNOV is a blogger, an activist for a free press and a journalist who has exposed uncomfortable truths about the rulers of Azerbaijan, including official corruption and police brutality. For almost two years, he has been imprisoned on bogus charges. As the end of his term approaches, the Azerbaijani police state has cooked up new charges to keep him in jail five to seven more years. Mr. Huseynov has gone on a hunger strike to protest. He must be freed and this travesty ended.
Behind the new persecution lies the grinding reality of Azeribaijan’s persecution of dissidents and journalists under the despot Ilham Aliyev. According to human rights groups, Mr. Aliyev’s jails hold 150 political prisoners, including 10 journalists. The release of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova in 2016 was not the end of this danger for those who speak the truth to power in Azerbaijan. Lately, Ms. Ismayilova has come under renewed harassment as well.
Mr. Huseynov used Facebook and YouTube effectively to hold Azerbaijan’s rulers to account. Among his probing and revelatory reports, in late 2016 he posted videos showing that while ordinary Azerbaijanis were hurting economically, government ministers were building themselves opulent palaces. He was detained Jan. 9, 2017, and the next day told a judge that police had beaten him in the station, put a plastic bag over his head and used a stun gun, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Ms. Ismayilova said his face was bruised and his shirt was covered in blood when he was released from the courthouse that day. Instead of an investigation into his treatment, which a judge ordered, Mr. Huseynov was prosecuted for “defamation” of the same police station that had tormented him. He was sentenced to two years in prison. He has been there since March 3, 2017.
Now the Azeri authorities have leveled new charges, claiming that Huseynov violently attacked a prison official. These allegations are vague, undocumented and probably as weighty as the first. The real purpose is to silence Mr. Huseynov so he won’t expose the lavish villas of the Azerbaijani ministers or testify against the brutality of the police. Mr. Huseynov went on hunger strike without food or water, and his health is deteriorating.
Mr. Aliyev must think no one will bother to call out his brutish behavior. An experienced career Foreign Service officer, Earle D. Litzenberger, has just been confirmed as U.S. ambassador. He declared in his confirmation hearing that “democracies thrive only when bolstered by an independent judiciary, respect for the rule of law, a free media, a vibrant civil society, pluralism, democratic electoral processes, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.” As a first act in his new position, the ambassador should read this list out loud to Mr. Aliyev and insist that Mr. Huseynov be freed.