Authorities Should Protect Author, Uphold Free Speech
(Moscow) – The Azerbaijani government should immediately end a hostile campaign of intimidation against writer Akram Aylisli. Aylisli recently published a controversial novel depicting relationships between ethnic Azeris and Armenians in Azerbaijan.
Foreign governments and intergovernmental organizations of which Azerbaijan is a member should speak out against this intimidation campaign. They should urge the authorities to immediately investigate those responsible for threats against Aylisli, and to respect freedom of expression.
“The Azerbaijani authorities have an obligation to protect Akram Aylisli,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead, they have led the effort to intimidate him, putting him at risk with a campaign of vicious smears and hostile rhetoric.”
Aylisli, a member of the Union of Writers of Azerbaijan since the Soviet era, is the author of Stone Dreams. The novel includes a description of violence by ethnic Azeris against Armenians during the 1920s, and at the end of the Soviet era, when the two countries engaged in armed conflict. Aylisli told Human Rights Watch that he saw the novel as an appeal for friendship between the two nations. The novel was published in Friendship of Peoples, a Russian literary journal, in December 2012.
Azerbaijan and Armenia fought a seven-year war over Nagorno-Karabakh, a primarily ethnic Armenian-populated autonomous enclave in Azerbaijan. Despite a 1994 ceasefire, the conflict has not yet reached a political solution. Against the background of the unresolved nature of the conflict, Aylisli’s sympathetic portrayal of Armenians and condemnation of violence against them caused uproar in Azerbaijan. An escalating crescendo of hateful rhetoric and threats against Aylisli started at the end of January 2013, culminating in a February 11 public statement by Hafiz Hajiyev, head of Modern Musavat, a pro-government political party. Hajiyev publicly said that he would pay
“Azerbaijan’s authorities should immediately investigate and hold accountable anyone responsible for making threats against Aylisli, and ensure his personal safety,” Williamson said.
On January 29, officials from the Yeni Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan’s ruling party, publicly called on Aylisli to withdraw the novel and ask for the nation’s forgiveness. Aylisli told Human Rights Watch that two days later, a crowd of about 70 people gathered in front of his home, shouting “Akram, leave the country now,” and “Shame on you”, and burned effigies of the author. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that police were present but made no effort to disperse the crowd. No damage was done to Aylisli’s home.
In a speech about Aylisli’s book, a high level official from Azerbaijan’s presidential administration said that, “We, as the Azerbaijani people, must express public hatred toward these people," a comment that appeared aimed at Aylisli.
During a February 1 session, some members of Azerbaijan’s parliament denounced Aylisli, called for him to be stripped of his honorary “People’s Writer” title and medals, and demanded that he take a DNA test to prove his ethnicity. On February 7, President Ilham Aliyev signed a decree stripping Aylisli of the title, which he had held since 1998, and cutting off his presidential monthly pension of AZN1000 [US$1,270], which he had drawn since 2002. Aylisli learned of the presidential decree from television news.
In the wake of the public vitriol, Aylisli’s wife and son were fired from their jobs. On February 4, a senior officer at Azerbaijan’s customs agency forced Najaf Naibov-Aylisli, Aylisli’s son, to sign a statement that he was “voluntarily” resigning from his job as department chief. Aylisli told Human Rights Watch his son had received no reprimands during his 12 years on job.
“My son had nothing to do with politics,” Aylisli said. “In fact he always advised me not to write about politics and never agreed with my political views.”
On February 5, Aylisli’s wife, Galina Alexandrovna, was forced to sign a “voluntary” statement resigning from her job at a public library, following an inspection announced several days before.
Public book burnings of Aylisli’s works, some organized by the ruling party, have taken place in several cities in Azerbaijan.
“The government of Azerbaijan is making a mockery of its international obligations on freedom of expression,” Williamson said. “This is shocking, particularly after Azerbaijani officials flocked to Strasbourg last month to tout the government’s human rights record at the Council of Europe.”
The European Court of Human Rights has issued numerous rulings upholding the principle that freedom of speech also protects ideas that might be shocking or disturbing to society. In a judgment handed down against Azerbaijan, in a case that dealt speech related to the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, the court said, “[F]reedom of information applie[s] not only to information or ideas that are favorably received, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb.”