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“Bring the Bottle”: Youth Activists Behind Bars in Azerbaijan

Political demonstration in Azerbaijan. Photo by Jahangir Yusif, used with permission.

Political demonstration in Azerbaijan. Photo by Jahangir Yusif, used with permission.

When Maxim Gorky wrote about revolutionary workers in his 1906 novel, “The Mother”, little did he know that a century later, social uprisings and revolutions would still be affecting and influencing the lives of people around the world.

He might not have imagined that in December 2013 in Azerbaijan, a young man would read “The Mother” in his prison cell and, saddened by difficult circumstances yet full of pride at having a heroic mother, be inspired to write a letter to his own mother.

The young man’s name is Zaur Gurbanli. He is one of eight members of an Azerbaijani youth movement called N!DA whom I witnessed undergoing court proceedings in Baku on April 15, 2014. Together with his seven colleagues, Zaur was charged with incitement to violence, illegal drug possession, illegal possession of explosives, and hooliganism. By the end of April 2014, Zaur and his cohorts will probably be charged with an additional series of grave crimes, none of which any of these young men has committed. The Prosecutor General has asked for a sentence of eight years in prison for each of the young men.

Last December, Zaur wrote to his mother, Sakina:

“Hi (smiley). I have read Gorky’s novel “The Mother”. In the book, the mother is aware of the truth about her son, just like you….I read it with much difficulty. It is like he was writing about all the things you had to endure…. You know what I remembered? There is this cartoon. The children’s mother gets sick and asks her children for water. None of the children bring her water. Then, the mother turns into a bird and flies away. And the children come running with the water splashing. They are crying.

“When I was a child, I was afraid you, too, were going to turn into a bird and fly away…. I read Gorky’s novel. I considered everything you have done while I've been in prison. I was sure this mother will never get sick of her children…. In these past 8 months, I feel like you have aged at least eight years because of me. If life went according to the the plot in the cartoon, you would be long gone by now. And I would be running after you with buckets full of water. But you haven’t turned into a bird (smiley)….

“I have inherited everything from you. You brought me to this world twice (smiley). That is why I am a very lucky man. That is why I am proud of you. I have a mother worthy of novels.”

Zaur’s mother, Sakina, can see her son only during prison visits and court hearings. It has been 11 months since she was able to sit down with her son for dinner, or have a conversation that didn’t involve police officers, courtrooms, or handcuffs. The mere experience of standing before the presiding judge and navigating the justice system of Azerbaijan, makes her a hero indeed. On my recent visit to Baku in April, I was able to meet the heroic mom- a woman of strength indeed. Even the guards stood still as she spoke to her son during the boys' April 15 hearing.

Case in point: On April 1, a police vehicle transferring defendants to jail stopped in front of the prison entrance, turned off its engine, and one of the officers threw in a tear gas canister into the car. This came in response to the defendants’ pleas that the car doors be opened, as one of them, a young man called Ilkin Rustamzade, suffers from asthma. The prison service has promised to look into the case, but a competing narrative maintains the prisoners were attempting to escape. The presiding judge dismissed the petition to investigate the case as an example of torture, saying the claim was unfounded.

Azerbaijani police are notorious for their poor treatment of captives. This is how Mammad Azizov, another of the detained members of the N!DA movement, recalls his interrogation [az]:

“The investigator got confused. He left to speak on the phone. A man named Azer took me to the room and started beating me. He called someone on the phone and said, “bring the bottle.” A man arrived with a baton. I was glad it was not a bottle. He beat me on my head, on different parts of my body. The beating continued for 15-20 minutes. Then they called another man and took me to his room.

“His name was Mamay; they addressed him as “boss.” Mamay continued beating me with his fists and kicking me, while Azer beat me with the baton. They beat me continuously for an hour. They said I had to testify against Rashad [another arrested member of N!DA]. I said I would not do it. Then Mamay said I had to choose between being raped by a person, or with a bottle. I said I don't want either. He rested a bit, then they continued beating me….”

Trumped up charges

If you examined the charges against activists, journalists or advocates currently in jail or in pretrial detention, you would find hooliganism, tax evasion, substance abuse, illegal possession of drugs, and illegal possession of weapons with intent to use against the government. Someone who doesn’t know the country well would think that most of Azerbaijani's youth are drug addicts who buy or trade arms in their spare time, while building bombs and mixing chemicals in their non-existent basements. And of course all of this illicit behavior is caused by that menace known as social media.

But it is not just the youth that are a threat to Azerbaijan. There is an older generation of troublemakers who also engage in many of these illegal behaviors. Anar Mammadli, the Chairman of Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center has been in pretrial custody since December 2013, on bogus charges. He is accused of tax evasion, illegal entrepreneurship, abuse of office, and more. His organization has been involved in observing elections for over a decade, reporting on election fraud. If convicted, he faces up to 12 years in jail.

Ilgar Mammadov, political analyst and chairman of the opposition group REAL (Republican Alternative), was convicted together with Tofig Yagublu, columnist and deputy chair of the opposition political party Musavat on March 17, 2014. The two men were found guilty of instigating violence on January 24, 2013, during a visit to the northern town of Ismayilli. The town was the site of anti-government riots, in response to indecent behaviour on the part of a relative of the local governor. Mammadov and Yagublu had travelled to Ismayilli to find out more about the situation and were arrested during their visit.

The other side of the rainbow

While the government is engaged in a witch-hunt, curtailing the freedoms of people like those mentioned above, certain other Azerbaijanis enjoy an unfettered life. These include government officials and their families and relatives, whose lives remain untouched by everyday realities, whose businesses flourish, and who are never man-handled by the Azerbaijani police.

It is no secret that public servants and MPs in Azerbaijan are engaged in business enterprise, though the law prohibits it. Corruption is at a record high, with Transparency International ranking Azerbaijan 127th among 177 countries.

And here's the icing on the cake: on May 16, Azerbaijan will assume the chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. And there's no doubt that the country will do its best to promote its image abroad. Not the image of a country that tortures its citizens, of course, but perhaps of a gentler nation that offers detainees the option of a being raped with a bottle instead.

Back in that court room, my heart ached as I watched those eight young men. They were there because Azerbaijani authorities are intimidated by the intelligence of the country's youth, who deserve none of the treatment they are getting. Seeing Zaur Gurbanli and his colleagues smile and exchange messages with their friends and families, uncertain what was in store for them and yet standing firmly on their feet passing jokes, was an image I felt the whole world should see. But there were few people to witness it, and fewer still will think of this image as the Council of Europe welcomes Azerbaijan to the chair with wide grins on their faces.

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