The opposition Popular Front Party claims that 11 of its members have been arrested in the past two weeks, and the party’s leader has reportedly had his phone and internet cut.
On 22 April, two members of the Popular Front Party, Avaz Akhmedov and Arif Babayev, were detained and given 20 and 30 days of administrative arrest, respectively.
Akhmedov was charged with petty hooliganism, while Babayev was accused in the spread of disinformation about COVID-19 online.
The Popular Front Party has stated that in the last two weeks 11 their members have been arrested. One of the men arrested was Niyamaddin Ahmadov, bodyguard to party leader Ali Karimli.
In this same stretch of time, a Hikmat Aghayev, a member of the Muslim Unity Movement was also arrested.
Meanwhile, on 20 April, Alizamin Salayev, another Popular Front Party member, who had spent 30 days under administrative arrest in January, and had been charged with slandering a regional police official, was sentenced to two years and three months in prison.
He had accused District Police Chief Investigator of the city of Salyan, Hamza Azizov, of rape.
[Read more on OC Media: Protest in Baku over arrest of activist who ‘defended rape victim’]
Human Rights Watch has condemned the wave of arrests. Writing in a statement released on 16 April that, ‘Azerbaijani authorities are abusing restrictions imposed to slow the spread of COVID-19 to arrest opposition activists and silence government critics’.
‘These arrests fall squarely within a longstanding pattern of political retaliation in Azerbaijan’, Giorgi Gogia, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch is quoted as saying in the statement. ‘The authorities should stop using a public health emergency as a pretext to punish legitimate speech.’
Opposition leader ‘isolated’
Along with the arrests of opposition activists, the leader of the opposition Popular Front Party, Ali Karimli, also claims to be under pressure.
According to Karimli, on the evening of 13 April, as he was about to be interviewed by journalist Sevinj Osmagizi, his internet service was cut off.
He said that his mobile and home phones were disconnected shortly after — as was his wife’s mobile connection.
The quarantine regime currently in place in Azerbaijan requires those without special permission to text the police and request permission to leave home. Without access to a mobile phone, as a result, Karmli said, he was trapped in his house.
Fuad Gakhramanli, a prominent member of the Popular Front Party, told Osmanqizi TV on Monday that the online accounts of Karimli on Whatsapp, Telegram and Facebook were hacked by the government.
‘If any messages are received or published from these accounts, know that it was not Ali Karimli’, he said.
Gakhramanli called the hacks a cybercrime. ‘Unfortunately, Azercell [a mobile operator] is also participating in this operation [...] they sent passwords of online accounts of Karimli to hackers’, he said.
The Popular Front Party stated on Monday that several other party members have faced cyber attacks on their online accounts.
Nigar Shikhlinskaya, the head of corporate communication of Azercell, told Meydan TV on Friday that the anonymity of personal data of each customer is protected. ‘We treat all customers in the same way’, she said.
Azerbaijani human rights lawyer Yalchin Imanov told OC Media that the cutting off Karimli and his family's access to communications technologies has violated a number of fundamental rights, including freedom of speech and 'threatens their right to live in safety'. He added that these rights are supported by the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Azerbaijan is a signatory.
Journalist allegedly beaten
On Sunday, journalist Teymur Karimov and one other journalist interviewed Karimli in his house.
Later speaking with Turan, Karimov recalled being ‘surveilled’ by men in a vehicle after leaving. Later in the day, while he was pursuing a different story, he was called by a supposed Baku resident who wanted Karimov to ‘make a reportage about their difficult situation’.
He went to the man's house, where he was confronted by four men who demanded he leave. When Karimov refused, they beat him and took his laptop and broke his camera. He also said they took the SD card which contained the interview with Ali Karimli.
Karimov said on Tuesday that he filed a complaint with Baku police and was told that the case would be investigated.
In a statement published on Tuesday, the Popular Front Party stated that, ‘there is no doubt that the incident was organized by the authorities’.
‘Given that the chairman of the Popular Front Party has been under a complete blockade for eight days, the aim was to prevent the interview with Ali Karimli from being broadcast’, the statement reads.
Since the special quarantine regime was declared in Azerbaijan on 24 March, three journalists have been arrested. The two most recent arrests were that of Ibrahim Vazirov and Mirsahib Rahiloghlu, both of which took place on 13 April. The third journalist, Natig Izbatov was arrested on 9 April.
[Read more on OC Media: Azerbaijan arrests journalists for ‘violating quarantine’]
In a speech delivered on 19 March, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev called any opposition group that did not enter ‘into dialogue’ with the authorities, ‘traitors and corrupt representatives of a fifth column’.
‘Look at what they say on social networks, they are full of hatred and provocation. They seem to want riots to happen. They want turmoil. They want panic’, Aliyev said.
He added that if a state of emergency were to be declared due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the ‘isolation of representatives of the fifth column’ would become ‘a historical necessity’.
Ali Ahmadov, the deputy chair of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, wrote on Facebook on 23 March that there were ‘two viruses’ in Azerbaijan, COVID-19 and the ‘political virus’ that was the opposition, specifically Ali Karimli. He wrote that the two should be fought against at ‘the same time’.