BAKU, Azerbaijan – Azerbaijan has charged the editor of a Talysh ethnic minority newspaper with spying for neighboring Iran and inciting public unrest, officials said Wednesday. But human rights activists said the journalist, who has criticized the authoritarian government for its treatment of minorities, may have grown too influential for officials' taste.
The case also comes as Azerbaijan-Iran relations have grown strained amid Iranian concerns about alleged Israeli spy activity in Azerbaijan.
Talysh Voice editor Hilal Mammadov was arrested last month after allegations of heroin possession. On Wednesday, police and prosecutors alleged in a joint statement that Mammadov was recruited by Iran's security services in 1992, and that they believe Mammadov was acting to undermine Azerbaijan's territorial integrity and inciting ethnic, racial and religious hatred.
Mammadov has criticized authorities for allegedly repressing minority populations in Azerbaijan. The Talysh, who speak a language akin to Persian, live along Azerbaijan's border with Iran.
The newspaper editor earlier gained attention in northern neighbor Russia for being behind a wildly popular Internet clip.
Mammadov created a wedding video showing dueling singers improvising barbs ending with a dismissive phrase that translates roughly as: "Who do you think you are? Get lost." The video was intended to illustrate local customs, but the phrase became popular in its own right and was adopted by Russia's opposition movement in reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Journalists are frequently jailed in Azerbaijan on charges that rights activists say are fabricated. Mammadov's predecessor as editor of Talysh Voice, Novruzali Mammadov, was sentenced to 10 years in jail in 2008, also on charges of spying for Iran. He was moved to a hospital shortly after being jailed and died in August 2009.
Prominent local human rights activist Leyla Yunus said at the time of Hilal Mammadov's arrest that he may have been targeted because he had become too influential in the Talysh community for the government's liking. It was not immediately clear how or if Novruzali and Hilal Mammadov were related.
Azerbaijan has nurtured close relations with the United States, while American nemesis Iran has expressed concern over alleged Israeli intelligence activity in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan, meanwhile, says it has arrested dozens of people allegedly hired by Iran to carry out terrorist attacks against the U.S. and Israeli embassies as well as Western-linked groups and companies.
Azerbaijan hosted the high-profile Eurovision Song Contest in May, leading some rights workers to hope that political freedoms might receive a boost as the country fell under the international spotlight. But Amnesty International has since reported a rise in police harassment of activists who took part in anti-government protests during Eurovision.