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Azeri youth activist sentenced to prison for "drug possession"

Azeri youth activist Jabbar Savalan was convicted last week (4 May) on charges of marijuana possession and sentenced to two and a half years in prison.  As readers of this blog may recall, Jabbar was arrested in February after calling for protest actions on Facebook and attending a youth conference in the city of Sumgayit.  He was taken to a police station where police searched him and allegedly found a small amount of marijuana in his jacket pocket.

So Jabbar (who is described in the Azerbaijani press as either 19 or 20 years old) now joins the roster of pro-democracy figures—journalists, politicians, bloggers, and others—who have been sent to prison in Azerbaijan for the crime of demanding democratic change.  This young man will rot in a horrid prison cell perhaps for a year, maybe two, before he is released in a “magnanimous gesture” by the president.

Azeri law student and journalist Elnur Majidli, currently studying in France, has been charged in absentia for plotting to violently overthrow the Azerbaijani government, and faces a possible 12-year sentence.  Majidli, who was mentioned here in early April, tells me that he will not return to Azerbaijan for fear of arrest and incarceration, and that his family is being “pressured” and the authorities are “listening to our telephone conversations and watching our home in Baku.”

Reports from various sources disagree on the exact charges that Majidli faces, with some saying he has been indicted under Article 283 (inciting religious and racial hatred), and other sources saying that Article 281 is being used (violent overthrow of the government).   But Majidli told me today via facebook that it’s actually Article 281.  Both are used often to bring opposition activists to trial.

Majidli’s father has reportedly been sacked from his job and his mother—according to this article from the “Index on Censorship”—has been told by her supervisors at work that they are under pressure to fire her, another common tactic by the authorities when an activist has been overly outspoken.

A number of human rights organizations have issued strongly worded assessments of the recent wave of arrests, convictions, and police tactics, including Amnesty International, which characterized the charges against Jabbar Salavan as “trumped up.”

In related news, human rights campaigner and former parliamentary candidate Vidadi Isgandarli is reportedly being held in police custody for two months prior to his trial on charges of “coercing citizens to vote against their will or preventing their voting process” and “interfering with or influencing the work of election commissions.”  I don’t know much about Isgandarli and have never met him, but RFE/RL reports that during last year’s parliamentary campaign, he criticized systemic corruption and alleged improprieties by candidates running on the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party ticket.

As I have pointed out in the last couple of months, the government’s strategy is to stamp out any nascent opposition movement that could attract public support and mushroom into large-scale rallies and the sort of instability that brought an end to the rule of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.   The fear that this implies is curious, since violent police tactics at rallies, a shrill propaganda campaign against the formal opposition as well as facebookers, and convictions in court on phony charges suggest that the government actually agrees with the central message of the Musavat and Popular Front parties: that President Aliyev’s rule is illegitimate and that the public if given half a chance would take to the streets, paralyze Baku, and force the resignation of the president.

Such a scenario is virtually impossible in my view, and I don’t want to go over the reasons on this blog yet again, but suffice it to say that the president is relatively popular and the main opposition parties have, for various reasons, failed to ignite widespread outrage.  The Egypt/Libya template doesn’t fit Azerbaijan.  Neither did the Color Revolution model in 2005.  If there is an historical precedent for Azerbaijan’s future, it may be analogous to Chile or Argentina, authoritarian regimes that evolved into full-on democracies recently, but only after a period of instability, repression, and the emergence of an enlightened middle class that became a potent political force for change.

For Azerbaijan, that kind of sea-change may be a long way off, since it is still a single-sector economy.  (Azerbaijan’s GINI Index of roughly 36 indicates a more economically equalitarian society than the US, but I think this reveals the limitations of the GINI coefficient in measuring socio-economic phenomena.)  See this piece by Charles Recknagel for a brief examination of the “weakness” of the middle class in the former USSR.  I don’t necessarily agree with his analysis (for instance, he claims that the opposition in Azerbaijan is “led by Islamists”), but it’s a starting place to examine the role of the middle class in Azerbaijan and elsewhere in Eurasia.

More to come this week on recent concessions to the opposition by Armenian President Serge Sargsyan and the latest threats to hold mass opposition rallies in Georgia.



Karl Rahder
Karl Rahder

Karl Rahder has written on the South Caucasus for ISN Security Watch and ISN Insights (, news and global affairs sites run by the Swiss government. Karl splits his time between the US and the former USSR - mostly the Caucasus and Ukraine, sometimes teaching international relations at universities (in Chicago, Baku, Tbilisi) or working on stories for ISN and other publications. Karl received his MA from the University of Chicago, and first came to the Caucasus in 2004 while on a CEP Visiting Faculty Fellowship. He's reported from the Caucasus on topics such as attempted coups, sedition trials, freedom of the press, and the frozen Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. For many years, Karl has also served as an on-call election observer for the OSCE, and in 2010, he worked as a long-term observer in Afghanistan for Democracy International.

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