Azerbaijan and the burden of democracy

On the arrest of eight young Azerbaijani men and the criminality of filming a ‘Harlem Shake’ video.

Activists have protested against many injustices in the country such as crackdowns on free speech and violations of basic rights, writes Geybullayeva [Reuters]

On May 6, a Baku court convicted eight young men to sentences of six to eight years for what many see as bogus charges. Seven of the convicted men are members of N!DA, a youth organised democratic civic movement. The eighth is a member of Free Youth organisation. They were arrested last year and charged with criminal offences ranging from illegal possession of drugs and firearms to incitement and public revolt.

Throughout the hearing, evidence proving the innocence of the eight men was quickly dismissed and prosecutors showed little interest in resolving the case without prison time. A number of international organisations and governments have condemned the sentencing. 

The eight are just a few of the 134 political prisoners currently held in Azerbaijan according to the Institute for Peace and Democracy, an Azerbaijani think-tank. A recent report by Freedom House measuring freedom of the press ranked Azerbaijan 184 out of 197 countries. Commonly cited infractions include arrests of journalists on manufactured charges, restrictive legislative amendments and violent crackdowns on public gatherings.

NGOs like human rights watch have described the situation as “deteriorating”, noting that, “The atmosphere for political activists and independent and pro-opposition journalists [has grown] acutely hostile.” This most recent conviction of N!DA members on inflated charges is another sign of the country’s rapid descent into authoritarianism.    

For many, democracy in Azerbaijan has been lost as the judgement of the international community appears to be focused on economic interests instead of blatant instances of human rights violations. 

Europe has an urgent need to secure alternative gas resources to free itself from the economic grasp of Russia. The situation in Ukraine has only exacerbated the situation, as most of Russia’s liquefied natural gas lines run through Ukraine to reach Europe. Azerbaijan presents an alternative, with over 7 billion barrels in proven oil reserves.

So when the Minister of Europe, David Lidington, expressed concern about the sentences given to N!DA activists calling them “politically motivated”, it presents a dichotomy between the EU’s reprimanding stance towards human rights violations and their economic necessities.  

Azerbaijani leadership disagrees with Lidington. In a statement on April 18, first vice-speaker of the Azerbaijani parliament Ziyafat Asgarov said: “There are no political prisoners but only those who are brought to justice for their crimes.”

Interestingly, the Council of Europe member states has been silent about Azerbaijan’s human rights record. In a 2012 report the Berlin-based think-tank European Stability Initiative exposed a number of Council of Europe MPs who were potentially bribed with expensive gifts in return for not commenting on the country’s poor human rights record. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan is about to begin a six-month chairmanship of the Council of Europe.

The situation at present in Azerbaijan suggests one thing – the burden of democracy is heavy and not all are willing to carry its weight.

So what is N!DA’s crime?

Founded in 2011, N!DA states its goals as striving to achieve democratic and social changes in Azerbaijan by defending the constitution and human rights within society. N!DA activists protested against many injustices in the country such as crackdowns on free speech, violations of basic rights, and poor social and economic care. Most of its board members were vocal on social media platforms. What brought them under the national spotlight was an incident that shook many across the country – the death of a conscript.

Called “Stop Conscript Deaths”, the Facebook page was calling for a peaceful protest on January 12, addressing the issue of the increased number of deaths among army conscripts from hazing and bullying within the military. Within days, the page gained significant popularity with some 17,000 people saying they would “attend”. In March, protests continued but just three days before another protest planned by N!DA, three of its members were arrested. Bakhtiyar Guliyev, Shahin Novruzov and Mahammad Azizov were charged with illegal possession of arms and drugs.

Under severe intimidation and reports of torture (Novruzov lost four of his front teeth and Azizov lost hearing in one ear) the three men were shown, a day before the scheduled March 10 protest, on all public and private TV channels confessing to their “committed” and “planned” crimes.

The next month saw another member of the movement, Rashad Hasanov, detained and charged with illegal possession of firearms. On March 30, police arrested board members of the movement – Rashadat Akhundov and Uzeyir Mammadli and charged them with ownership of firearms and explosives.

Akhundov’s wife, commenting on the charge, said no one searched their apartment when her husband was indicted. The final member of the movement was detained on April 1. Zaur Gurbanli was first called into questioning but was unable to leave the premises of the police station. On the same day, he was charged with unlawful possession of firearms.

On May 17, another young activist was detained and placed under a two-month pretrial detention. Ilkin Rustamzade was accused of hooliganism for shooting and later sharing a “Harlem Shake” video on YouTube.

For almost a year, these men were kept in jail with detention periods extended by two or three months at a time. The court hearings commenced in April. When the prosecutor demanded sentences with lengthy jail time, all eight men announced their decision to go on a hunger strike. However after 20 days they were convicted.

“If these young people are ignored, it will be impossible to rein them in later,” said Yevda Abramov, a member of Parliament speaking on the trials. “Azerbaijan has more enemies than friends. [The enemies] fund certain groups, and these young people were the beneficiaries of that funding.”

Ramiz Mehtiyev, head of the Presidential Administration, made a statement chastising social networks as tools with vicious aims.

In a final letter, the accused repeated the true cause of their arrest. “[It is] because of our efforts in this [freedom, democracy, rule of law] sphere [that] we have been arrested,” read Rashadat Akhundov.

So who is the criminal in this case? The authorities who fear a different voice, or the young, educated activists who care about the country they live in. Or perhaps the responsibility is in the hands of those who intentionally turn the other way in return for presents and deals? The situation at present in Azerbaijan suggests one thing – the burden of democracy is heavy and not all are willing to carry its weight.

Arzu Geybullayeva is a political analyst for the Caucasus region and a specialist in human rights and press freedom in Azerbaijan.