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Facebook Arousing Government Suspicion in Baku on Eve of Protests
BayBak, Azerbaijan | 830 days ago | Friday, 11th March , 2011 , 02:13 [am] | Azerbaijan
|.|| Even with no specifics yet available for Azerbaijanâ€™s â€œday of rage,â€ the government is persisting with a crackdown on youth group activists and Facebook users in the run-up to unsanctioned youth demonstrations expected for March 11.
The idea for such a protest first went public on March 6, when a group of six Azerbaijani youth activists set up a Facebook group that called for large-scale anti-government
Even with no specifics yet available for Azerbaijanâ€™s â€œday of rage,â€ the government is persisting with a crackdown on youth group activists and Facebook users in the run-up to unsanctioned youth demonstrations expected for March 11.
The idea for such a protest first went public on March 6, when a group of six Azerbaijani youth activists set up a Facebook group that called for large-scale anti-government demonstrations on March 11 throughout Azerbaijan. â€œAre you ready to join together to break up the dictatorial regime in Azerbaijan in a civilized manner and without provocations?â€ the groupâ€™s Facebook page asks.
The number of Azerbaijani Facebook users appears to have surged in recent months. The Facebook traffic-tracking website  Socialbakers.com reports that Azerbaijanâ€™s Facebook users increased by 4.6 percent in February to reach 324,880 people, more than three-quarters of whom are between 18 and 34 years old.
Coming nearly a month after the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a figure with whom Azerbaijani government critics often compare Azerbaijanâ€™s strong-armed President Ilham Aliyev, the Facebook groupâ€™s call for supporters has met with a relatively modest response, however.
While founders of the group, known as â€œMarch 11 â€“ The Great Peopleâ€™s Day,â€ have invited some 30,000 Facebook users to join their cause, so far only about 3,000 registrants have accepted the invitation; 5,000 users have rejected it, group sources say.
Despite the international public attention their protest appeal has attracted, one of the campaign activists admitted that the group does not expect anything remotely Cairo-scale on March 11. The eventâ€™s purpose is simply to make Azerbaijani youth more politically active, said the activist, who asked not to be named. â€œBut we did not plan any concrete rallies on March 11,â€ he claimed. Nor has any information about a plan, place or time for the rallies been published.
Nonetheless, with scenes from Egypt, Tunisia and, now, Libya before them, the Azerbaijani police are jittery. On March 10, the Interior Ministry issued a statement warning that â€œall methodsâ€ will be used to prevent any unauthorized demonstrations. â€œIt relates to all attempts, including the one planned for March 11 via Facebook,â€ said Interior Ministry spokesperson Orhan Mansurzade.
The ministryâ€™s statement went on to allege that protestors are â€œworking with foreign centersâ€ to try and import â€œcolor revolutionsâ€ to Azerbaijan.
With that long-standing fear in mind, police began targeting individuals who disseminated leaflets about the protests, handouts that were filmed and posted on the March 11 groupâ€™s Facebook page. Opposition Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan member Dayanat Babayev, Musavat Party youth activist Sakhavat Soltanly and youth activist Rshadat Akhundov have been sentenced to five days in prison for alleged â€œhooliganism and resisting police.â€
Several other individuals involved in distributing leaflets and some representatives of civil society groups were also detained between March 7-10, but have since been released. Among them were two employees of the Institute for Reportersâ€™ Freedom and Safety [IRFS receives funding from the Open Society Assistance Foundation â€“ Azerbaijan;  EurasiaNet.org is financed under the separate auspices of the Open Society Instituteâ€™s Central Eurasia Project] and an employee of the Nida public union. One of the IRFS detainees, Mehman Huseynov, told  EurasiaNet.org that police had questioned him about the March 11 protest.
The detentions follow the March 4 imprisonment of youth activist and Facebook user Bakhtiyar Hajiyev and February 7 imprisonment of fellow activist Jabbar Savalanly. International and local civil rights groups, as well as embassies, have condemned such moves.
The outside criticism, however, has done little to deter officials. Preventive measures have also been taken at Azerbaijani universities. One student at Baku State University, the countryâ€™s largest higher education institution, said that the university administration told students on March 10 that they must provide written justifications for any absence from class on March 11. â€œWe were threatened with expulsion if we are found attending any protest,â€ said the student, who asked not to be named. Many BSU students had not previously heard about the March 11 protests, he added.
Some pro-government media have tried another tactic. In an apparent attempt to smear the reputations of prominent Azerbaijani Facebook users known for their independent views, such outlets last week published an illustrated list of ten Azerbaijanis who have Armenian friends listed in their Facebook profiles. [The list also includes the name of  EurasiaNet.org correspondent and former RFE/RL Baku bureau chief Khadija Ismayilova â€“ ed.]
The hubbub over the crackdown on Facebook users and youth activists has nearly overshadowed the more concrete plans for another demonstration — this time clearly linked with the opposition â€“ on March 12.
Despite the city governmentâ€™s refusal to grant participants permission for a rally, the Musavat Party has pledged to stage a protest on the afternoon of March 12 in downtown Baku, outside a cinema not far from the city center.
A senior member of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party, parliamentarian Mubariz Gurbanly, however, has downplayed the likelihood that either the March 11 or March 12 protests could prove serious. â€œThe number of those who support the protests is much smaller than even 0.1 percent of [Azerbaijanâ€™s] populationâ€ of 8.3 million people, Gurbanly asserted to the pro-government APA news agency.
But, in the end, evaluating Azerbaijanâ€™s protest potential may come down to a question of quality, rather than quantity, asserted Intigam Aliyev, director of the Legal Education Society and a lawyer involved in the defense of activist Hajiyev.
Azerbaijanâ€™s Facebook-enabled youth activists â€œrepresent a new generation of youth . . . who are able to lead people and fight for their rights,â€ Aliyev argued. â€œThey could become a big headache for the government.â€
Editor’s note: Shahin Abbasov is a freelance reporter based in Baku and a board member of the Open Society Assistance Foundation-Azerbaijan.eurasianet, Voice of a Nation