Many protests during the last two decades seamlessly blend the offline protest with online tools. Just think of the Arab Spring and the #metoo protests. They use platforms (e.g. Facebook) to strengthen their offline protests. But as the case of Mehman Huseynov, an Azeri blogger, shows online activism can also use offline protest as a tool. A tool to protect online activists.
Azerbaijan 2017. Blogger Mehman Huseynov posted photos of homes allegedly belonging to government officials on “Sancaq” (The Pin), a socio-political Facebook page. Huseynov also posted a video where he asked people on the streets of Baku if they want to name their husbands or wives as their second-in-command. By doing so, he criticised current president Aliyev who appointed his wife as the vice-president and documented corruption by Azeri high officials. On March 3rd, he was arrested (source). [youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qiQA83hpJoU[/youtube]
It was not the first time, the authorities arrested Huseynov. In October, 2013, he was detained after releasing a video. The video shows opposition candidate Camil Hasanli who dubs over a scene where Spartan King Leonidas condemns another candidate. Back then, Huseynov responded:
“They told me to behave and slow down my pre election activities on the Internet,” the Hasanli supporter told RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service shortly after his release. “I reminded them that I am a journalist. I also noted what President Aliyev claims very often — that the Internet is free in Azerbaijan. My activity is not against the law and I will continue to produce satirical and critical videos (source)”.
This time, it would be different. Huseynov told international media the police mistreated him. To fight against his detention and his right to freedom of speech, Huseynov went into hunger strike.
Out of support for Huseynov, thousands of protesters took part in unsanctioned rallies. On January 19th 2019 a sanctioned rally in the capital Baku took place. The last protest was organised by the National Council for Democratic Forces, made up out of Azeri opposition parties (source). [youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1-nB6bu1pbY[/youtube]
Human rights activists outside of Azerbaijan, Western governments and major political parties in the European Parliament supported the protestors (source). Three days later, Huseynov was released. Their statement reads:
“The criminal case on Mehman Huseynov was terminated due to the fact that he is a young man, was not subject to disciplinary liability during his term of punishment, took the path of reform, and his old father is in need of care (source)”.
The case of Huseynov shows the strength of both offline protests and international pressure. That said, Freedom House (2019) indicates that frequently online journalists, bloggers and social media users are arrested for their activism online in Azerbaijan. At times their sentences run up to 6 years prison. You can find a number of these activists on the website of Freedom House. It does not seem for now that press freedom in Azerbaijan is improving. Let’s hope initiatives such as these protests will support more online activists worldwide.
Interested in more stories of protests from former Soviet Union countries? Check out my other articles on protests in Armenia and Ukraine.
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