Azerbaijan Jails Opposition Facebook Activist

An Azeri demonstrator being rounded up during a March protest in Baku

BAKU (Agence France-Presse)—A young opposition activist was jailed for two and half years on drug charges in Azerbaijan on Wednesday after using Facebook to call for an uprising like those in the Arab world.

Jabbar Savalan, 20, was the first activist to be imprisoned since government opponents began a series of thwarted protests this year in the mainly Muslim state, which is an important supplier of oil and gas to the West.

“Despite the fact that I was thrown into jail, I choose freedom,” Savalan told the court.

The student activist was arrested for alleged opium possession in February after posting a message on the social-networking website calling for a “day of rage” – a reference to mass protests in the Middle East.

“I think the severity of the sentence is connected to my client’s political activities,” his lawyer, Anar Gasimov, told Agence France-Presse.

Savalan, a supporter of the Azerbaijani Popular Front party, alleged he was detained because turmoil in the Middle East worried the government in the energy-rich republic.

Savalan’s lawyer said seven of his supporters were detained at the court in the city of Sumgayit after shouting out angry slogans when the judge handed down the sentence.

Rights group Amnesty International said the activist’s imprisonment showed how far the Azerbaijani authorities were willing to go to silence dissenting voices.

“Jabbar Savalan’s conviction – and the recent arrests of other protest organizers – shows how fragile the environment for freedom of expression in Azerbaijan is right now,” John Dalhuisen of Amnesty International said in a statement.

Azerbaijan attracted widespread international criticism after two young bloggers who used Facebook and YouTube to campaign for democratic change spent more than a year in jail for “hooliganism” before being released in November 2010.

Several small protest rallies this year have been dispersed by riot police, who detained dozens of activists, including a small child who was briefly held with her mother last month after shouting out the word “Freedom!”

Opposition supporters complain of a lack of democratic rights and freedom of speech in Azerbaijan.

But the governing party of President Ilham Aliyev says a discredited and unpopular opposition has been trying to stir up confrontation that could damage the country, and analysts believe that widespread political unrest is unlikely.

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