Earlier this year, the Harlem Shake, a video Internet meme, became a viral online sensation. For most, the Harlem Shake phenomenon was a quick laugh that rapidly grew stale. But in Azerbaijan, at least one activist may be reaping the consequences for years to come.
On May 17, Azerbaijani youth activist Ilkin Rustemzade was arrested on charges of hooliganism for his alleged involvement in a Harlem Shake video filmed in the country’s capital city, Baku. The video, which was uploaded to YouTube more than two months before his arrest, is completely apolitical, and Rustemzade does not even appear on-screen. The government claims that he helped film it, though his lawyer denies he was involved at all.
Others who have made Harlem Shake videos in Baku—including members of a pro-government youth movement—have not been punished. The real reason Rustemzade has been targeted is because of his online activism and his criticism of the government as part of the Free Youth Organization. Rustemzade has already been sentenced to two months of pre-trial detention, and he faces up to five years in jail if convicted of the hooliganism charges.
Just two days before his arrest in connection with the video, Rustemzade was released after serving 15 days of administrative detention. He had been arrested for gathering peacefully to commemorate victims on the anniversary of the 2009 shooting at the Azerbaijan State Oil Academy. Rustemzade also served six days of administrative detention in March for organizing a protest calling attention to the deaths of soldiers in non-combat situations.
Baku-based Human Rights Club Chairman Rasul Jafarov said in an emailed statement on May 20, “The targeting of individuals in connection with a harmless ‘Harlem Shake’ video highlights the absurdity of the current political situation in the country.”
Absurd indeed. Just last week, Azerbaijan’s parliament also passed legislation that, once signed into law by the president, would criminalize defamation online, meaning citizens could face up to three years in jail for their Internet postings.
Despite their stated commitment to Internet freedom, Azerbaijani authorities seem determined to identify and punish individuals who express critical opinions or call for protests online. More than 80 others are currently behind bars in Azerbaijan for politically motivated reasons, including seven members of the N!DA civic movement, who were active social media users. There are also increasing reports of harassment, questioning, and arrests of individuals in connection with their Facebook posts.
Local activists fear that Rustemzade will not be the only one arrested in connection with this video. As the charges against him specify “group hooliganism,” further arrests are likely. One potential target is Mehman Huseynov, a well-known photojournalist, blogger, and activist who appeared in the video.
Emin Milli, a blogger who was once imprisoned, believes that the situation will continue to worsen. Milli and his friend Adnan Hajizade, often referred to as the “donkey bloggers,” spent 17 months in jail from 2009-2010 on politically motivated hooliganism charges in connection with a satirical video they posted to YouTube, featuring a press conference with a person in a donkey suit.
“It is absolutely absurd that someone could be arrested for this video, for simply having fun. Every time I think the situation in Azerbaijan cannot become more absurd, the government proves me wrong,” Milli told me.