Photojournalist faces criminal charges in Azerbaijan

Moscow, June 14, 2012–The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on Azerbaijani authorities to immediately drop criminal charges against Mehman Huseynov, a photojournalist and blogger with the Baku-based Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS) and the independent Azerbaijani news agency Turan.

Huseynov was arrested Tuesday, interrogated for three hours, and kept at a Baku police station overnight. Upon his release Wednesday, Huseynov was charged with assaulting officers at an unsanctioned anti-government rally, organized during the Eurovision Song Contest that Baku hosted last month, the Azerbaijani service of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported. Huseynov told journalists after his release that police had upped his initial charge of “hooliganism”–which carries up to one year in prison–to “assaulting police”–which carries a jail term of up to five years if convicted, RFE/RL said.

Huseynov was made to sign a written pledge not to leave town, IRFS Director Emin Huseynov, who is Mehman Huseynov’s brother, told CPJ. Mehman Huseynov denies having assaulted the police and said he had only covered the May 21 rally as a journalist.

“We call on Azerbaijani authorities to scrap all charges against Mehman Huseynov and allow him to do his job without fear of reprisal,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “This relentless crackdown on the press and civil society must stop.”

The government of Azerbaijan this year stepped up retaliation against independent reporting and civil society activists, imprisoning several reporters on fabricated, politicized charges because of their critical work, CPJ research shows

Apart from being a photojournalist and a blogger, Huseynov participated in the Sing for Democracy campaign–a local advocacy effort to highlight Azerbaijan’s poor human rights record during Eurovision. “The pressure on Mehman Huseynov is pressure on him as a journalist, on IRFS as a whole, and on the members of the Sing for Democracy campaign,” Emin Huseynov told CPJ.

Fears of retaliation against independent journalists and civil activists in the aftermath of Eurovision–when the international attention on Azerbaijan dwindled–rose sharply after high-ranking presidential adviser Ali Hasanov publicly threatened them. Speaking at a conference days after the May 26 Eurovision finale, Hasanov said: “Those opposition activists, journalists, newspapers should not dare appear in society. They should be ashamed to appear in the streets. … Public hatred should be demonstrated against them.” The threats were picked up by independent online television channel Obyektiv TV.

In a May letter to song contest organizers the European Broadcasting Union, CPJ and other international groups warned of potential retaliation against independent journalists, human rights defenders, and civil activists in Azerbaijan post-Eurovision, and called on the EBU to take an active stance against government abuse.