Sex and Drug Charges: Post-Soviet Governments' New Weapons Against Activists

If the ruling clique doesn't like what dissidents are doing, they can always just accuse them or being pornographers or drug addicts.
st petersburg activist banner.jpg
Olga Kurnosova, the leader of the St. Petersburg branch of Garry Kasparov's United Civil Front movement, flashes victory signs from a police van after being detained during a protest in St.Petersburg on August 31, 2011. (Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters)

If you didn't know any better, you'd think that dissidents in much of the former Soviet Union were a bunch of foul-mouthed junkie pornographers.

In March, police in Azerbaijan arrested Mahammad Azizov on drugs charges. A few weeks later, they picked up Dashgin Malikov. Days later, Taleh Bagirov was nabbed. On May 9, it was Rashad Ramazonov's turn.

What all these young men have in common, besides denying the charges, is their outspoken criticism of the government of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. Azizov and Malikov belong to opposition groups. Bagirov is an imam who gave a sermon criticizing Aliyev days before his arrest. Ramazanov is an opposition blogger.

The Democracy Report

Rounding up opposition activists on odd and often spurious charges, drug-related or otherwise, is not unique to Azerbaijan. From Russia to Ukraine to Belarus, activists have been charged with crimes ranging from distributing pornography to smuggling caviar to cursing in public.

Heather McGill is a researcher for the London-based rights group Amnesty International.

She maintains that the prosecution of activists under various nonpolitical charges complicates the work of organizations such as hers as they try to identify and defend political prisoners. The tactic also provides political cover for authoritarian regimes, she says, as "governments are very keen to claim that they don't have political prisoners."

"If you claim somebody has committed a criminal offense, then it makes it harder for people to defend that person," she says. "It just makes the case more complex for us and we need to be very, very careful in researching whether that person has in fact done what the authorities claim they have."

In a report issued this week, Human Rights Watch (HRW) charged that the Azerbaijan detentions are "part of an intensified campaign against [government] critics as elections grow near." The country's presidential election is scheduled for October 16.

Baku-based human rights activist Leyla Yunus agrees with HRW's conclusions.

"There has not been a single year in the last 20 when no journalist was jailed," she says. "They are detained either for carrying drugs or on defamation charges. Now we see the repressions increasing as the elections approach. More journalists are being jailed."

Over the last couple of years in Azerbaijan, satirist Mirza Sakit, journalist Eynulla Fatullayev, and activist Jabbar Savalan were all jailed for possession of drugs.

The epidemic of alleged drug use among opposition political figures is by no means limited to Azerbaijan. In 2010, Russian activist and artist Taisiya Osipova was arrested after police allegedly found four grams of heroin in her Smolensk home. She claims the drugs were planted because she refused to provide information against her husband, Sergei Fomchenkov, a leader of the Other Russia opposition movement.

Osipova's case is unusual because a court sentenced her to eight years in prison, even though prosecutors had only sought a four-year term. After a court in 2012 denied Osipova's appeal, Fomchenkov said that the case is entirely political.

"I said that the ruling would be political and that it would be as harsh as it could be," he said. "Of course, no one expected the court would sentence her to twice as long -- eight years. After the sentencing, I became completely pessimistic and I think, first, the decision is political and that it was made at the very highest levels of government."

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