WHAT DOES it take to keep attention focused on a dictatorship that arbitrarily throws a probing blogger in prison? The blogger, Mehman Huseynov, has decided it takes a hunger strike. He has been refusing solid food in prison in Azerbaijan to call attention to a threatened new jail term. Other prisoners are taking up the call, joining his hunger strike in protest and demanding an end to political repression.
Azerbaijan under President Ilham Aliyev holds 128 political prisoners, according to a survey by a watchdog, the Working Group for a Unified List of Political Prisoners. The list includes 68 religious activists, 17 political and social activists, 14 people arrested for participating in protests, 10 religious believers, nine journalists and bloggers, three “political hostages” who are relatives of politicians, three people with excessive life sentences, two former state officials, one rights defender and one poet. The list was described in a report by Meydan TV, an independent news outlet that also has been hounded by Mr. Aliyev.
In short, anyone can be detained or punished at any time, especially those who try to hold the ruling class to account. Mr. Huseynov used Facebook and YouTube to do so. In late 2016, he posted videos showing that while ordinary Azerbaijanis were hurting economically, government ministers were building themselves opulent palaces. His targets didn’t like what they saw. In January 2017, he was arrested. After he complained of violent treatment by police, the authorities slapped him with a prison term for defaming the very police station that had roughed him up. Now that his two-year term is coming to an end, the authorities have brought new charges that seem just as flimsy as the old.
In response to this travesty, a number of other political prisoners have joined the hunger strike, as has the courageous journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who was also previously imprisoned. The European Parliament on Jan. 17 passed a resolution calling for Mr. Huseynov’s release, noting that stacking new charges on top of old ones is a familiar tactic in Azerbaijan — “this is the fifth such case in recent months” — and asserting that “the media environment and freedom of expression in Azerbaijan have not shown any substantial progress.”
Several of the hunger strikers expressed worry in a statement that the outside world will look the other way. “Once the dust settles,” they wrote, “someone from the West will come and a deal will be made in exchange for the release [of] several political prisoners. . . . They will fill their suitcases with oil, euros and dollars, and go back and wink at the government, giving them the green light for new repressions.” It is up to the West to make sure this doesn’t happen.