Worrying Sign Of Crackdown On Azeri Press

It's been some time since the name of Che Guevara struck fear into capitalist souls. Now the Argentine revolutionary is more of a money-spinner himself -- a hip totem used to sell countless numbers of T-shirts and other trinkets carrying his iconic bearded visage. But in Azerbaijan, it seems, his spirit still has the power to unsettle. Earlier this month, police raided an event at a cafe in Baku celebrating what would have been Guevara's 80th birthday. About 20 of the young revelers were detained for questioning, including members of the Che Guevara Fan Club and journalists covering the event.

One of them was Emin Huseinov, chairman of the Institute for Reporter Safety and Freedom and a tireless campaigner for media rights in a country where opposition journalists are regularly jailed for libeling government officials. At the police station, Huseinov says he was taken into a room where a man in civilian clothes and sunglasses, who had led the raid, pulled out a pistol and said, "I will destroy you." Then he started hitting Huseinov with the gun. Shortly afterward, he passed out and was taken to hospital with head injuries.

Azeri officials deny this. The police initially claimed that Huseinov had actually injured himself. Then the Azeri Interior Ministry said Huseinov wasn't beaten up but was hospitalized because of a previous illness. This is a reference to the trauma he suffered when seriously assaulted by police during the presidential election in Azerbaijan five years ago.

Then came a response from Azerbaijan's presidential administration, fingering Huseinov as some kind of agent provocateur for unnamed forces, flitting from outrage to outrage. "Unfortunately, Emin Huseinov has repeatedly ended up at the center of these kinds of well-planned provocations," an official said. "Missionaries arrange some party and Emin Huseinov goes there. Someone organizes something in front of the presidential administration -- he is there again."

As this statement suggests, Huseinov isn't exactly the darling of the Azeri authorities. Before starting his media freedom organization, he led a pro-democracy movement called Magam (It's Time), modeled on the youth resistance groups involved in revolutions in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine.

But it is curious that the police felt the need to bust the Che Guevara party at all, particularly considering that only about 50 people were there. The Interior Ministry said it was because the event was "unauthorized," while the presidential administration official suggested that it was "not the right time" to hold such meetings. When that time will come in Azerbaijan remains unclear.

Matthew Collin is a journalist in Tbilisi.