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AZERBAIJAN MARKS CENTENNIAL OF DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC WITH LITTLE FANFARE

The Azeri Times

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One hundred years ago this month, the first secular democracy in the Muslim world was established, the short-lived Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. The republic’s progressive credentials – it was the first Muslim country to allow women to vote – are often touted by the publicity-loving Azerbaijani government.

But as the centennial of the republic’s founding approaches, the same government is taking a low-key approach, offending some of the republic’s admirers and highlighting the complex attitude that current authorities hold toward their forebears.

During a speech last year about the upcoming centennial, President Ilham Aliyev paid a sort of tribute to the republic. But when he named several of the key figures in Azerbaijani history, he pointedly omitted Mammad Amin Rasulzadeh, the leader of the first republic.

And when Aliyev again discussed the republic at an economic forum in March, he suggested that “if the founders of the first Democratic Republic had a chance to see how Azerbaijan develops today, they would have definitely been proud of us,” a formulation that admirers of the republic found insulting.

The first republic was a well-established democracy which was based on liberal values, said Altay Goyushov, an Azerbaijani historian. “Today, Azerbaijan is at the bottom of all the rankings, and if the founders of the Azerbaijan Republic actually saw it, they would be very upset,” he said.

The republic was founded on May 28, 1918, emerging out of the collapse of the Russian Empire. It was the first state in history to use the name “Azerbaijan,” and ran the country on liberal, modernizing principles until the Soviet Union invaded and annexed it in 1920.

“The republic’s leaders were the most successful in Azerbaijani history,” said Jamil Hasanli, a historian and opposition politician.

The admiration of the republic and its leader Rasulzadeh, however, comes at the expense of the man the current government prefers to see as the father of the nation: Heydar Aliyev, president of the country from 1993 to 2003 and the father of the current president, Ilham.

For Ilham Aliyev, “the current republic is the heir of Soviet Azerbaijan under Heydar Aliyev,” rather than of the 1918-1920 republic, said Thomas de Waal, a Caucasus expert at Carnegie Europe, in an interview with Eurasianet. That means that “the first republic, with its Musavat government, language of democracy and rights, does not fit so well into this legacy,” he said. (Musavat was Rasulzadeh’s political party; one of today’s embattled opposition parties, of the same name, sees itself as that party’s heir.)

Baku, indeed, has sought to steadily erase Rasulzadeh from the public sphere. Monuments and statues to him have been taken down over the past two decades, and his picture was removed from the country’s currency.

The way the history of the republic is taught today is a direct result of the government’s political directives, said Nigar Maxwell, head of a department dedicated to studying the first republic at Azerbaijan’s National Academy of Sciences.

“Each statement by the authorities, starting with the president and then down the organizational ladder is a signal to public organizations and scientific institutions as a guideline for building a definite direction for them,” Maxwell told Eurasianet.

Formal events celebrating the centennial are few: a handful of museum exhibits and scholarly conferences have taken place, but they have been overshadowed by other events like the recently held Formula 1 race in Baku.

In the absence of larger events, republic admirers are marking the centennial online, by changing their social media profile photos to include a frame honoring the republic, setting up Facebook pages to raise awareness about the founding fathers, or organizing volunteering projects to commemorate the centennial.

The opposition political party ReAL has organized a commemoration on May 28, involving a number of Azerbaijan’s most prominent government critics including Anar Mammadli and Khadija Ismayilova. The invitation to the event makes a veiled but clear reference to today’s political situation: “The path to freedom is not easy. One hundred years ago our ancestors accomplished this in spite of all the obstacles. We urge you to celebrate the proud page of our history – the 100th anniversary of our republic.”

Some government loyalists have complained about Rasulzadeh’s admirers, including Zahid Oruj, who ran in April’s presidential elections while asking his supporters to vote for Ilham Aliyev.

“Why is Rasulzadeh, a person who created Azerbaijan during the first republic, accepted by everybody, but Heydar Aliyev, who is the founder of the modern Azerbaijani state, is not accepted by the opposition and they don’t hang his photo in their offices?” Oruj asked in a pre-election interview with the BBC’s Azerbaijani service. “Let’s change this mindset. If they accept the Heydar Aliyev model, these parties might participate in the future development of the country.”

“Right now there is a narrative struggle between these two camps,” said Erkin Gadirli, a ReAL board member. “The government takes this [Rasulzadeh commemoration] seriously because the opposition made Rasulzadeh into an icon. If not, they would never have tried to put Aliyev ahead of Rasulzadeh.”

The government’s recent rhetoric about Yerevan and other parts of current-day Armenia being Azerbaijan’s “historical lands,” which sparked an international backlash, is part of its attempt to denigrate the first republic, Maxwell said.

“Today’s Azerbaijan cannot be compared with the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, because at that time there were difficulties and our independence did not allow Azerbaijan to pursue an independent policy,” Aliyev said in a January speech. “We had economic difficulties, land losses, and our historical city [Yerevan] was given to Armenia.”

“Unfortunately, the republic is remembered only from anniversary to anniversary, and so is easily used by both powerful and opposition figures as a card in their political games,” Maxwell said.

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Azerbaijan

Demonstration in support of Azerbaijani blogger on hunger strike in prison: fines and arrests

The Azeri Times

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Four demonstrators have been sentenced to three weeks in prison on charges of organising unauthorised gatherings. The demonstrators recently protested the launch of a new criminal case against well-known Azerbaijani blogger Mehman Huseynov.

Among the arrestees are two journalists and two members of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (PFPA).

Another four participants were fined 300 to 400 manats (approximately 177 to 236 dollars).

Huseynov has gone on a hunger strike in protest against new charges of “attacking a prison guard” that are being levied against him.

The demonstration

Several dozen journalists and activists gathered on 3 January near the Neftchiler metro station on the outskirts of Baku, shouting “Freedom for Mehman!” and “Freedom for political prisoners!”.

Five minutes later the police stopped the rally and detained 15 people.

Seven women were released at the police station, and the rest were taken to the Nizami District Court. Three other women were released there, and five men were left in custody until a court decision was made.

On 4 January the court sentenced journalist Afgan Sadigov to 22 days in prison, while journalist Nurlan Qahramanov and PFPA members Elmkhan Agayev and Sakhavat Nabiyev were sentenced to 21 days in prison.

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Hunger strike

Mehman Huseynov is an Azerbaijani video blogger who has actively criticised the wealth and corruption of certain officials.

In early 2017 he was detained by the police. After his release, Huseynov complained that the head of the police station had tortured him. He was again arrested and received two years in prison on charges of defamation.

Local journalists, opposition activists and human rights advocates have spoken out in his defence, considering him a victim of political repression.

On 26 December 2018, with just a few months of his prison term remaining, Huseynov was accused of attacking a prison officer. A new criminal case has now been filed against him. In response, the blogger has gone on hunger strike.

The Caucasian Knot writes that on 30 December his condition worsened, and at the insistence of his brother, agreed to drink water.

The head of the public relations department of the Prison Service, Mehman Sadiqov, stated that Huseynov was not on a hunger strike and that he had no health problems.

Huseynov’s father tried to meet with him in the detention facility, but was refused access. His lawyers are also unaware of his current condition.

Mehman Huseynov has received outspoken support from Reporters Without Borders.

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Azerbaijan

Imprisoned Azerbaijani political blogger on hunger strike

The Azeri Times

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A prominent Azerbaijani political blogger and activist is on a hunger strike after the authorities brought new charges against him shortly before he was to be released from a two-year prison term.

Mehman Huseynov, once Azerbaijan’s most popular political blogger, was sentenced to two years in prison in March 2017 on charges that he defamed police officers who allegedly tortured him. He had been scheduled to be released in March 2019 but on December 26, prison authorities brought new charges against him.    

Huseynov allegedly did not cooperate with an inspection in prison and attacked a guard, Lieutenant Ali Abdalov, according to a statement from the state prison service. “He physically resisted and injured Abdalov,” as well as “scattered and broke” items in an office in the prison, the statement said. The prison service also claimed that Huseynov had 461 manats (about $270) in his possession, which is against prison regulations. The new charges carry a potential prison term of up to seven years.   

The day after the new charges were brought, Huseynov, 26, stopped eating and drinking, his family reported.

This is the third time in the last year that the Azerbaijani authorities have imposed new charges on a detained political activist, thus prolonging their terms. Similar punishments were meted out to a religious activist, Telman Shiraliyev, and a senior member of the opposition Popular Front Party, Mammad Ibrahim.

“The government’s repunishments are the result of their understanding that they will never control [Huseynov] by imprisonment,” said Jamil Hasanli, an Azerbaijani historian and political activist, in a Facebook post. “The government does not want to forgive this young blogger for exposing their corruption.”

“We were expecting this kind of provocation against Mehman. He was warned that he would not be released in March,” his brother, Emin Huseynov – also a political activist, living in exile in Switzerland – told the news agency Turan. “The charges are nonsense. Who believes someone can beat prison officer while being under arrest?”

Emin Huseynov said that his brother was being punished for statements he made at his mother’s funeral in August: “Breaking me down is possible only with death. Today I have lost my mother. If they release me alive from jail, I will double my activities.”

Emin Huseynov said that Mehman started drinking water again after four days at the insistence of his family, though he continues to refuse food. His family and fellow activists say his health has dramatically deteriorated.

“Mehman Huseynov is in danger of dying and we hold the Azerbaijani authorities responsible for his fate,” press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders said in a December 31 statement.

Prison authorities have claimed that Huseynov is not in fact on a hunger strike. “Mehman Huseynov is having food and water. He keeps contact with his family by telephone. He is not conducting a hunger strike. His health is also normal, and he enjoys all the rights he is allowed under the law,” said Mehman Sadigov, a prison service spokesman.  

On January 3, a group of activists held a rally in Baku demanding the Huseynov’s release, with posters depicting Huseynov and chanting “Freedom to Mehman.” Ten of the activists were detained by police.


Lamiya Adilgiz
i is a freelance Azerbaijani journalist.

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Politics

Senator Marco Rubio Calls for Immediate Release of Mehman Huseynov

The Azeri Times

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US Senator Marco Rubio called on official Baku to immediately release blogger Mehman Huseynov.

“Azerbaijani blogger Mehman Huseynov remains imprisoned on a trumped-up charge. Now he is in a critical situation due to a hunger strike. The government of Azerbaijan should release him immediately,” the senator wrote in his blog on Twitter.

Recall that Huseynov continues his hunger strike for the 10th day in connection with a new case brought against him about alleged resistance to the warden in the prison, where he is serving a two-year term on defamation charges against the police

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