Twenty people in Azerbaijan are on hunger strike to protest political prosecutions in the country. Nine in prisons announced that they are striking along with other journalists, politicians and activists participating outside of prisons.

The hunger strikes began on 26 December when Mehman Huseynov, a blogger who criticized the Azerbaijani government, announced he would no longer eat to protest new charges made against him shortly before his release from prison. Huseynov was originally imprisoned for highlighting government corruption.

The nine prisoners joining Huseynov on hunger strike released a letter from prison denouncing what they consider to be injustice and repression in Azerbaijan.

“We protest the darkness of our country! We protest repression and we will not keep silent! We will own our country and will resist the fact that its brightest people are being treated like gangsters in prisons!” reads the letter.

One of the prisoners is Giyas Ibrahimov, who was arrested in May 2016 for graffitiing anti-government slogans on a monument in Baku. Five months after his initial arrest, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for drug offences. Amnesty International and other organizations believe he was tortured into giving a confession.

Investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova told OC Media that she was striking for the government to drop the new charges against Huseynov, release the detainees arrested for exercising their freedom of speech and expression, and for the adoption of a policy of holding no political prisoners.

Ismayilova believes that at least 10 journalists are currently political prisoners in Azerbaijan. “Giyas Ibrahimov and Bayram Mammadov were arrested for writing on a statue, poet Tofig Hasanli was arrested for his poem criticizing the Aliyevs, and there are more,” she says.

The international pressure against Azerbaijan is increasing. Dunka Mijatovic, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, told the Azeri Deputy Minister that “the authorities should drop the charges brought against Mr Huseynov on 26 December because they lack credibility… I hope the authorities of Azerbaijan will abide by their human rights obligations.”

US Representative Chris Smith also affirmed that “President Aliyev must now act to bring an end to this latest shameful episode of the regime’s cruel campaign against free speech.”

In addition, the European Parliament is drafting a resolution on Huseynov scheduled to be voted upon on 17 January.

Despite the international pressure, the Azerbaijani government and authorities have denied and played down the severity of the hunger strike. The Azerbaijani prison service released a statement to the Azerbaijani news site Qafwazinfo denying that a hunger strike is taking place within prisons. “No detainee in a detention cell or in prisons is on hunger strike. The information about prisoners’ hunger striking does not reflect reality and is aimed at creating confusion in society and keeping certain people on the agenda,” the statement read.

Those on hunger strike hope to continue to attract the world’s attention and bring about change. The world is beginning to notice, but it remains to be seen whether the Azerbaijani government will release the prisoners.

By Amy Jones

Image source: Facebook / Khadija Ismayilova