10 Years for Graffiti: Prisoners of Conscience in Azerbaijan
Exactly one year ago today, two young Azerbaijani men, Bayram Mammadov and Qiyas Ibrahimov, wrote anti-government slogans on a monument to Heydar Aliyev in Baku. The next day, they were arrested, accused of drug distribution and possession and sentenced to 10 years.
Meydan TV tells the story of these “monument prisoners”.
“My son was like all children. He went to school, attended lessons, read books… And we had a good relationship. After the army he planned to enroll in a master’s program in Italy. I didn’t want him to spend his youth behind bars”, says Farman Mammadov with grief.
Rather than graduate studies as a student of Baku Slavic University, Bayram Mammadov headed off to prison. On the night of May 10, 2016, Bayram and his friend Qiyas Ibrahimov, also a student, wrote “Happy Slaves’ Day!” and “F**k the System” on a monument to Heydar Aliyev in a park also named after him.
Since May 10, 2000, Flower Day has been celebrated in Azerbaijan – a holiday which falls on the birthday of Azerbaijan’s former president and father of current president, Ilham Aliyev.
Qiyas and Bayram toyed with the phrase “Gül bayramınız mübarək!” (Happy Flower Day”), changing the letters in the first word to make “Qul bayramınız mübarək!” – “Happy Slave Day!"
The artists were arrested that same night. During the search, law-enforcement personnel found 1 kg of heroin in each of their homes. Charges were brought against them in accordance with Article 234 (Illegal possession, transport, and sale of narcotics) of the Criminal Code of Azerbaijan. On December 8, 2016, the Baku felonies court sentenced Bayram Mammadov to ten years in prison.
“Neighbors saw how he was detained. We only found out later than he was snatched up for scribbles on a monument. We found out from the lawyer. We also only found out in the court about this whole story with the monument”, recalls Farman.
The family of the second “prisoner of conscience” says the exact same.
“On the night of the arrest they planted narcotics in our home”, says Giyas’s mother, Shura Ibrahimova.
“Qiyas, simply passing by, leaned in towards me and said, ‘Mom, don’t be afraid, they want to arrest me for political reasons and take me away for narcotics”. And also, when one young man went to our kitchen, Qiyas asked him, “Did you go in there to plant the narcotics?” I understood that they wanted to defame Giyas, but didn’t know why. On the next day, May 11 (ed. - he was detained on the night of May 10), we got news that in the city someone had written slogans on the plinth of a monument to Heydar Aliyev, and that two young men were suspected of doing this. Then I found out that one of them is my Qiyas”
The case of Giyas Ibrahimov is a repeat, down to the details, of that which happened with Bayram: the arrest, a kilogram of heroin discovered, and then years in prison, to which he was sentenced by a Baku court on October 25, 2016.
Farman Mammadov says that Bayram never spoke out against the government at home. His mother still can’t come to terms with this. “At the time of our meeting with him, his mother asked him, how did you wind up here? And he responded, ‘You’re starting up with that again? Well, it just so happened that I did this.
Shura Ibrahimova also says that she knew nothing of her son’s idea to ‘decorate’ the monument, or about his oppositionist views: “In general he didn’t like to share things at home, I didn’t know anything about his views. He never spoke badly of the government, there was no sort of talk about this. I know that, in his opinion, the situation in the country, the conditions for young people and their education, leave much to be desire
A Wall-Mounted Protest
Specialists maintain a broad definition of the term ‘graffiti’, meaning any form of street art on walls, from simple, written words, to complex compositions. Graffiti on political topics can be found all over the world: from Dmitri Vrubel’s famous “Brezhnev-Honecker’s Kiss” (My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love” on the remains of the Berlin Wall, to Banksy’s drawings. But in countries where political freedom is restricted, writing on walls transforms into a form of protest and is persecuted by the government.
‘One-the-wall politics’ began to spread in modern Azerbaijan in 2010, when left-leaning youth began to decorate the walls of buildings in the center of Baku with various slogans: “Oil belongs to the people”, “Down with unemployment! Don’t stay silent, make demands!” and so on. On the walls of the presidential library in Baku, one could read, “Capitalism shows. Socialism gives”, and on the wall of the “Nokia” office, “Revolution – connecting people!”
At first, nobody got worked up over the scribblings. The leftists wrote on the walls at night, the government cleaned them in the morning, and nobody was arrested. What changed in the situation with Bayram and Qiyas?
The publicist Mammad Suleymanov believes that neither the text nor the place they chose for their protest decided the fates of Bayram and Giyas: the times have simply changed. They have ceased to be vegetarian, to use Anna Akhmatova’s expression: “If they had written these words ten years ago, they would maybe have been caught and imprisoned for thirty days maximum. But after the Arab Spring, the government began to view any ‘liberalization’ as weakness and unnecessary leniency. It is precisely for this reason that the punishment for similar actions is radically different from that of five or ten years ago.
“Perhaps if he had acted as I think he should have, he would have wound up in an even worse situation”
The parents of both activists, though they do not agree with what their sons did, nevertheless are understanding of their actions. “He should speak about the problems in the country, but not in this way. But I respect his thinking, he is a free individual”, says Bayram’s father. In any case, his son did nothing unjustifiable: “When I see certain things, I think: If I don’t say anything, nor will anyone else, and that just won’t do”.
Though Qiyas’s mother Shura doesn’t understand why her son needed to ‘decorate’ the plinth of a monument to the nation’s leader, “grandpa Heydar” (as the former president is referred to in the country), she nevertheless accepts all this with composure: “Clearly we think differently. He is an educated young man, and doesn’t see the world as I see it. I wouldn’t want for him to write on the monument, but even if my son expressed his thoughts openly, he would be arrested all the same. Giyas is young, he has his ideas and views; perhaps if he had acted as I think he should have, he would have wound up in an even worse situation…”
"I broke an unwritten law of the system"
In the courtroom, Giyas and Bayram, despite the long term behind bars that awaits them, stated that they do not regret what they did. In his last words in court, Giyas said, “I don’t intend to defend myself against the accusations presented. My real crime is a ‘white’ one, like the color of the paints that I used. The real reason for my arrest is my absolutely civilized protest, as a young student, against the lies and excesses of the political system of the country in which I live. I didn’t break any written laws. According to the law, as it is written, my action is not considered a crime. I broke the unwritten law of the system. The system uses these unwritten laws to portray injustice as justice, and slavery as freedom”.
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