It has been a year since Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova was taken into custody, marking a watershed in the government’s domestic crackdown on free speech. Individual freedoms have continued to erode since then in Azerbaijan, and the jailing of journalists and rights activists has developed into a cause celebre in the West. Yet inside Azerbaijan, the ongoing crackdown does not seem to be generating much public sympathy for government critics.
Critics of President Ilham Aliyev’s administration contend that the government’s hard-fisted treatment of dissenters and independent journalists has silenced public debate and intimidated citizens from expressing opinions about politics.
“Cursing the government is no way out,” said a 43-year-old Baku resident who gave his name only as Vasif. “Otherwise, everything will end in tears for you.”
Authorities’ hardline policies have succeeded in muzzling media outlets. Under recent changes to Azerbaijan’s media law, the government can prosecute and shut down outlets that are deemed to have defamed officials or state agencies. Prosecutors already have issued warnings to several outlets.
Beyond that, others point to a less tangible factor in keeping citizens quiet: memories of the political and economic chaos of the early and mid-1990s, a period when Azerbaijan lost control of the Nagorno-Karabakh territory to Armenia, have fostered a deep desire among most citizens for stability. Many also take pride in Azerbaijan’s rising international prominence.
Ahmad Shahidov, director of the Azerbaijan Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, an entity that is tolerated by the government, crystallized the general consensus in comments published in the bimonthly journal New Eastern Europe this July. “Before being a human rights defender, I am a patriot,” he said.
Karabakh is perhaps the most prominent hot-button issue for the government. Increasingly, as cease-fire violations between Azerbaijan and Armenia over contested territory have surged over the past year, Azerbaijani society appears willing to accept the government’s contention that criticism of its policies is “anti-Azerbaijani,” said 23-year-old human rights defender Orkhan Mammad.
Especially when striving to take an impartial view on the Karabakh issue, or about relations with Armenia, “the more you write … in English, the more you are anti-Azerbaijani,” Mammad said.
Once the impression is created that an individual “is working with foreign forces,” it is largely there to stay, he added.
Khalisa Shahverdi, who ran an unsuccessful campaign as an independent candidate for parliament in 2010, said that in order not to be seen as “anti-Azerbaijani“ she tries not to say anything that could be construed as unpatriotic, or that hints at ambivalence on the question of Karabakh’s return to Azerbaijani control.
“I am for pragmatic politics,” Shahverdi said. “One has to stay in this country for positive changes. Leaving and tweeting in English won’t bring changes.”
London-based Amnesty International, a watchdog group denounced by Baku as “anti-Azerbaijani,” has identified “at least 19” Azerbaijanis as prisoners of conscience.
Prominent among them are human-rights activist Leyla Yunus, director of the Institute of Peace and Democracy, and her husband, conflict analyst Arif Yunusov, who for years worked on reconciliation measures with Armenians. The pair was sentenced this August to eight-and-a-half and seven-year prison terms respectively for alleged economic crimes. Yunusov was released from prison this fall for ill health.
Ismayilova is another prominent critic who is now considered a political prisoner. She was taken into pre-trial detention on December 5, 2014, and ultimately received a seven-and-a-half-year prison sentence following a trial during the summer that watchdogs described as politically motivated.
The government understandably has characterized as anti-Azerbaijani all claims that it uses the courts to rein in such critics.
Officials voice support for civil rights, but underline that, as Shahidov the rights activist was quoted as saying by New Eastern Europe, “the notion of freedom in my country is different from the European one.”
Most Azerbaijanis who were interviewed for this story, including some who hold liberal opinions, voiced ambivalent views about Ismayilova’s case. For example, Gulara Azimzadeh, an LGBT-rights activist in her late 20s, believes the criminal charges against Ismayilova were trumped up, and termed the state’s case against her as “not serious.” At the same time, Azimzadeh expressed distaste for what she perceived as Ismayilova’s self-promotion. Government heavy-handedness, Azimzadeh added, “made her [Ismayilova] unduly a hero.”
Under the current circumstances, most Azerbaijanis, especially those grappling to maintain living standards amid a slowing economy, are steering clear of politics. Historian Altay Goyusov attributed the prevailing ambivalence about the treatment of Ismayilova and other imprisoned government critics to fear of the “police state.” But he also noted that there is a wide gap between views expressed openly and those voiced in private.
“People are trying to express themselves so that their view does not irritate the government,” Goyusov said. “However, whenever they are free of a risky environment, they are asserting the contrary.”
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