An imprisoned Azerbaijani activist says he is now refusing to drink water as he enters his 38th day of a hunger strike to protest what he calls his wrongful imprisonment.
Initially detained on narcotic possession charges, Saleh Rustamov, a government critic and opposition activist, was later sentenced to seven years and three months of imprisonment on additional charges including money laundering and illegal entrepreneurship.
Numerous human rights organizations and international observers view the charges as politically motivated.
Rustamov previously warned authorities that he would continue his hunger strike until death. On Monday, his lawyer, Bahruz Bayramov, told VOA that Rustamov announced that he would start refusing water.
“He can no longer walk. He has no strength to walk,” Bayramov said. “He has lost 17 kilograms in weight. His speech is slurred, and he cannot sleep due to pain.”
On Friday, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price urged the Azerbaijani government to release Rustamov on “humanitarian grounds,” saying U.S. officials are deeply troubled by reports of his worsening condition.
The rapporteurs of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) for the monitoring of Azerbaijan raised alarms about Rustamov’s condition as early as October.
“Mr. Rustamov’s case is one of many examples of the lack of independence of the justice illustrated by a long-standing pattern of repression of the government’s critics which is a major concern in Azerbaijan,” Austria’s Stefan Schennach and Britain’s Richard Bacon said in a statement calling upon the Azerbaijani authorities to review the cases of all alleged political prisoners.
Azerbaijani authorities have not responded to the international calls with regard with Rustamov’s case. The request by the European Court of Human Rights for Azerbaijani authorities to report on Rustamov’s state of health has gone unanswered.
The Penitentiary Services of Azerbaijan’s Justice Ministry issued a statement on December 9 calling the reports on social media regarding Rustamov’s health “untruthful,” although it did confirm that he was refusing food.
The statement noted the authorities have facilitated visits to the prisoner by the representatives of the International Red Cross, Ombudsman’s Office and civil rights activists.
In recent weeks, dozens of protesters took to the streets of capital city Baku to demand Rustamov’s release.
The protests were quickly dispersed as the police detained the activists, severely beating some of them.
Rustamov, who had served in the government during the 1992-93 rule of the Popular Front of Azerbaijan, had been living in Russia since 1997.
Rustamov was arrested in May of 2018 when he returned to Azerbaijan to attend the funeral of a relative.