As Pre-Eurovision Hunger Strike Begins, Human Rights Organization Demands Immediate Release of 17 Remaining "Prisoners of Conscience"
(Washington, D.C.) -- Amnesty International today demanded the immediate release of 17 Azerbaijani prisoners of conscience, following the launch of a hunger strike on Tuesday by 11 people, jailed for their role in anti-government protests last year.
On Tuesday, an unexpected court decision ordered the release of activist and prisoner of conscience Elnur Majidli, who had been serving a two-year prison sentence for his participation in an unsanctioned demonstration in the capital Baku on April 2, 2011.
"Elnur Majidli's release is very welcome news, but the Azerbaijani authorities must now immediately and unconditionally free all the remaining 17 prisoners of conscience," said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's Europe and Central Asia director.
According to Majidli, Baku's Khazar District Court responded to his request to be released by holding a hearing at the prison on Tuesday. His lawyer was not present at the session, which resulted in the activist being freed.
Speaking to an opposition newspaper, Majidli said the decision was unexpected and his release was unconditional – although he will serve the remainder of his two-year term out of prison.
The 11 hunger strikers still behind bars since last year's demonstrations are Arif Hajili, Shahin Hasanli, Sahib Karimov, Mahammad Majidli, Babek Hasanov, Tural Abbaslý, Rufat Hajibaili, Ulvi Guliyev, Vidadi Isgandarov, Zulfuqar Eyvazov and Ahad Mammadli.
The prisoners have vowed to continue their hunger strike until the end of the Eurovision song contest, which takes place in Baku later this month. Some of the prisoners' relatives have joined the hunger strike in solidarity.
"When viewers across the world tune in for the Eurovision, the most convincing way for Azerbaijan to present itself as a modern, progressive nation will be for the authorities to end their ongoing crackdown on freedom of expression," said Dalhuisen.
Members of Azerbaijan's opposition plan to hold another unsanctioned demonstration in downtown Baku on May 19 and 20, before the Eurovision finals. Baku's mayor's office has yet to respond to their request for a venue.
On Monday, Baku police violently dispersed two separate peaceful protests in the city center, detaining 18 opposition activists and organizers. As with recent demonstrations, the protesters were calling for the release of prisoners of conscience and an end to restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of association in Baku.
"Baku city authorities must stop preventing peaceful protests, and should grant permission for next weekend's planned demonstrations," added Dalhuisen. "Their attempts to tighten the noose around dissent are bound to unravel amid increased international scrutiny during Eurovision."
Amnesty International is a Nobel Peace Prize-winning grassroots activist organization with more than 3 million supporters, activists and volunteers in more than 150 countries campaigning for human rights worldwide. The organization investigates and exposes abuses, educates and mobilizes the public, and works to protect people wherever justice, freedom, truth and dignity are denied.