Theologian Haji Taleh Baghirzade is a known religious scholar and activist in Azerbaijan. In fall 2013, he was jailed on charges of drug possession, commonly used by the authorities in politically motivated trials. On March 24, 2013, Baghirzade delivered a sermon accusing the government of Ilham Aliyev of corruption and describing the president as a
(despot). A week later, he was detained by the police for drug possession.
Hundreds staged protests against his arrest in April 2013. Earlier, Baghirzade had been imprisoned for 1.5 years over a protest action in front of the Ministry of Education regarding the wearing of hijabs in public schools. In the first part of an exclusive interview with Meydan TV, Baghirzade, who has just been released from jail, discussed recent cases against female journalists in Azerbaijan and the broader socio-political climate in the country.
On the day of your release, you stated that you had only left the smaller prison for a bigger one. The situation in the smaller prison is clear, but what steps need to be taken in order to change the situation in the bigger prison?
In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the most Compassionate), before I answer your question, I would say that we need to take an analytical approach to this issue. In other words, what are the root causes of the current situation? What has led Azerbaijan to become a large prison? Once we discover these reasons, it is important to think about their solutions and make effort towards the development of our people. We can see the situation in front of us; there are people in prison who have been arrested unjustly, people who have only raised their voice to express their free thoughts. The power is trying to oppress these voices using its pressure and repression. But this is impossible. When we read history, we see that such events happen in all ages, and regardless of the length of the struggle, the people have always won. Currently we are facing this process.
Why do we call Azerbaijan a big prison? As you know, the government is holding the power through law enforcement rather than through humanist and democratic principles. The government is threatening people, through which it creates fear among them. This fear prevents people from thinking. Sometimes they call us a leader, however in reality we are people’s servants. What do we, prisoners of conscience in both the smaller and bigger prisons, contribute to the society? The visible part is painful: people suffer. But what are the benefits of this in terms of getting released from the bigger prison? Simply, the liberation of Azerbaijan.
Today Azerbaijan is full of “mined areas,” and the power has placed a mine of fear into every home. As a result of this, people are scared of expressing their thoughts openly because the law enforcement has punished them. In such a situation, those who think about the future of the nation start to neutralize the mines. They open a way for people to think through eliminating that fear masterly and skillfully.
Do they manage to neutralize those “mines”?
They eliminate the sense of fear among people through getting into the prisons. Today the way people view prison is different from how they did several years ago. The government treated people just as adults try to scare children with electricity. And our people were child-minded too. Thanks to God, the Azerbaijani people have become more mature, and do not believe in fear of the power. Neither do they view prisons as a source of fear. People say that they would go to prison for the sake of their conscience, religion and national moral values. Sometimes those who neutralize the mines hit them, getting arrested or falling for a righteous cause. This is natural and expected. But we cannot speak about freedom and leaders as long as the mines have not been neutralized. However, currently we simply engage in mine-cleaning so that people can think in the right manner.
The second main issue is that the power has deprived people of freedom of thought. Today there is no family which does not owe money to banks. They have created a five-day work system, and for the remaining two days they use entertainment on television to stop people from thinking. Then what is the use of the arrests? The first use is that they make people think as a human being with a conscience. The power’s project in this sense has failed as people now think about prisoners too.
But there is one more issue, they threaten and arrest relatives of those whom you call “minesweepers.” Relatives of Ganimat Zahidov and Emin Milli have been arrested. They also arrest women, like human rights defender Leyla Yunus. Does this lead you to think that this process will yet continue for a long time?
No doubt, the struggle could be long or short. This depends on our determination, our unbreakable will, power and strength. Look at how far the power has come; they threaten relatives of people who fight. Now even if they deprive people of their freedom, they cannot defeat their thoughts. This is why they put pressure through other means. At first, threats to relatives appear disturbing, but ultimately this disturbance will work against the power because it will provoke hatred among the people towards them. If hatred occurs, then the fear will disappear. If the area of hatred gets wider in society, the power will begin to fear it. Unfortunately today the people do not openly express their hatred as they are scared. In reality, repressive policies cause the development of people’s thinking as when there is no thinking, there is no development. We believe in thinking. Azerbaijan will be saved by the multitude of people who can think. Today we want to see our youth free-minded.
With regard to the arrest of women, during the period that I was in Gobustan, the event that disturbed me the most was the arrests of Leyla Yunus and Khadija Ismayilova. Men were given strength by God Almighty but as women are fragile, they should be respected. Yes, spiritually women and men are equal; however physically there is a visible difference. I swear to God, if the power signed an agreement with us saying that they would free the women and imprison us as replacements, we would be ready to accept it. When Armenia occupied our lands, it took our women, our honor as hostages. The occupants made us feel that pain. We have not taken our revenge until now. At the same time, arresting our women in socio-political life is not right.
They should not be in prison today; if we do not protect Leyla Yunus and Khadija Ismayilova, arrests will come to our homes too. Look, this is a very important point. By doing this, the power is making the arrest of women commonplace. When Gular Ahmadova was arrested, I was also disturbed because she was a small player in this picture where there were much larger figures. With Gular Ahmadova’s arrest, they also normalized the arrest of women. This is why I expressed my concern about the start of arrests of free-thinking women. I would like to say it again, we need to protect women. Prison is no place for an Azerbaijani woman.