Mass unrest shook the capital of Ismaili Region in Azerbaijan on January 23, 2013.
It quickly grew into a protest demanding the resignation of the head of the regional administration, Nizami Elekperov. As a result of the protests, more than 60 people were arrested; riot police and internal troops used tear grenades and water cannons to disperse the protesters.
Leader of ReAL (Republican Alternative) movement Ilgar Mammadov headed out to Ismaili to observe the unrest.
A month after the incident, Mammadov was convicted in accordance with Article 233 (Organization of actions resulting in a breach of public order, or active participation in such actions) and Article 315 (Resisting or using force against public officials) of the Criminal Code of the Azerbaijan Republic.
He was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Influential international organizations for the protection of human rights, including Amnesty International, recognized Ilgar as a prisoner of conscience.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has, on multiple occasions, pronounced rulings calling for his immediate release and restoration of his rights. However, these rulings were not enacted.
Why is the Azerbaijani government so afraid of Ilgar Mammadov?
At this point, Ilgar Mammadov has already been imprisoned for four years and three months. The prison administration only permits him to meet with lawyers and family members.
His close associates cannot meet with him, and for four years now have been denied the opportunity to speak with him.
“In March of last year, when around fifteen political prisoners were pardoned, we had very much hoped that Ilgar’s name would be among them. This year we had also hoped. We heard from his lawyer that Ilgar himself didn’t believe that he will be pardoned or released, he doesn’t even hope for this. He believes that he will serve the full seven years. But we, his friends, have not lost hope…” says one of Mammadov’s associates, Natig Jafarli, the executive secretary of the ReAL movement.
The question arises: why did the government ‘not like’ Ilgar Mammadov in the first place? Who is this young leader, who is of such concern to the government and why do they think he is so dangerous?
A mutinous schoolboy and a student activist
Ilgar was born in Baku, to a family of Soviet intellectuals. Already as a young schoolboy he showed signs of leadership and free-spiritedness.
In 1986-1987 he created an informal organization at his school and published an ‘illegal wall newspaper’, which the school did not approve of. After this, on several occasions, his parents were summoned by the director, who complained about their son’s ‘unrestrained’ thinking.
Immediately after enrolling at Moscow State University he became an active participant in the student movement. Ilgar was one of the first people after the events of January 20, 1990 who organized a protest action before the Azerbaijani delegation in Moscow, opposing the entry of troops into Baku.
In 1998 he was elected deputy chair of the National Independence Party of Azerbaijan. But by 2003 Mammadov had already left the party’s ranks.
“I first got to know Ilgar, indirectly, in 2004”, says REAL movement functionary Azer Hasimli. “At that time I had enrolled as a graduate student at Lomonosov Moscow State University. In the Russian language enrollment exam, I was given an article that I had to recount in Russian. It was an article written by Ilgar…”, said Mr. Hasymly, sharing his recollections.
A Eurocentrist by principle
“Ilgar is also an intrepid individual. Over these long and exhausting four years of imprisonment, he has not broken. Not every political prisoner endures this ordeal with honor. This also shows that he is a strong-willed person.”
These are the words of Jamil Hasanli, chair of the National Council opposition bloc. And though Mr. Hasanli is one of Mammadov’s political opponents (Editor’s note: Ilgar Mammadov and Jamil Hasanli were candidates in the presidential elections in Azerbaijan in 2013), he has only positive things to say about him. He says that he knows Ilgar as a eurocentrist by principle.
“I have known Ilgar Mammadov since the 90s. As a political leader, he is set apart by his intellect, his worldview and his competence. Additionally, he is a person who is committed to his values. Long before he got into politics, in his educational activities, he was always a supporter of European values. He always saw the future of Azerbaijan within the European area”, said Hasanli.
The ReAL movement appeared on Azerbaijan’s political map in 2009.
The movement was created by Ilgar and a group of politicians of the new generation. Set against the backdrop of the traditional opposition, which represented socially underprivileged layers of society, the movement was set apart by the fact that its functionaries were successful politicians, economists, historians, and lawyers; they had experienced career growth and represented the interests of the country’s middle class. They could be called the face of the new opposition in Azerbaijan.
Ilgar and members of the movement were always active in social networks, holding lectures on topics like freedom of speech, democracy, European integration and universal values, and they enjoyed popularity both among the intellectual elite and among the dissident youth.
“I personally got to know him in 2010. Before this, I had heard a lot about him, primarily from the press: a young, promising, well-educated, pro-Western politician. That’s how he was portrayed in the Azerbaijani press. In a word, he was the image of a politician of the new generation”, says Hasimli.
“I was invited to a meeting with the members of the REAL leadership. Ilgar was also present at the meeting. We asked one another numerous questions. We primarily spoke about politics, about the difficulties of political action in our country, about the tasks society is faced with. From the first moment, he seemed to me to be a very open, honest, respectable, and good-spirited person. And my first impression was not mistaken.”
In 2013, when the next presidential elections got underway in the country, the movement made the decision to put a candidate on the ballot: the movement’s leader, Ilgar Mammadov.
But participation in the elections was hampered by two circumstances that changed not only these, but also the movement’s future plans: 1.) Mammadov’s candidacy was simply not registered. 2.) Ilgar was arrested.
What is the government worried about?
Historian Altay Goyushov, a member of the ReAL movement, compared Mammadov to the ex-president of Georgia and former governor of Odessa, Mikhail Saakashvili, and Russian opposition figure and founder of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, Alexei Navalny, and predicts that the government was afraid of his growing popularity, worried that he was appealing to the intelligent, modern youth, and to a distinct segment of the middle class.
“It must be acknowledged that in Azerbaijan the chairperson of a popular organization has never been detained so long after arrest. There must be a serious reason for this. Ilgar was one of those who created several organizations consisting of young people, and also of the middle class, which culminated in their active participation in politics. Ilgar was one of the leading figures of a great awakening”, says Goyushov.
He believes that Mammadov’s participation in almost all important protests (against the bloody tragedy at the Azerbaijan State Oil Academy, against the death of soldiers in the Azerbaijani Army in non-combat conditions) as well as the fact that, during such events, he was at the center of the crowds, among the youth, was particularly disconcerting for the government.
“The moment he heard about protests in various corners of the country, he headed there to see everything in person, to hear from the people themselves the reasons for their anger. He was arrested precisely because of the fact that he was a politician, capable of causing such change. He is being held in prison because he has the potential to energize a part of the population that is far from politics and, because of his bravery, to be right in the middle of the action.”
Natig Jafarli also believes that the government sees a serious competitor in Ilgar Mammadov: “Naturally, if there was a normal, democratic situation in the country, Ilgar and his movement would be one of the primary, and maybe even the most fundamental alternative force to this government. Today the majority of people are already well-acquainted with both Ilgar and his team”.
Has the government achieved its goal in arresting Mammadov?
Natig Jafarli believes that Ilgar was arrested for two reasons: “First, the government thought they would ‘break’ him very quickly. And in doing so, that they would nip a potentially strong rival in the bud. Secondly, they were expecting that Ilgar’s arrest would lead to a dissolution of the REAL movement. They believed that, like other political organizations, the entire system is held together internally by the leader, and that the leader’s arrest would lead to the collapse of the organization”.
The Azerbaijani government is ignoring the ruling of the European Court
In May of 2014, the ECHR found Mammadov’s sentence to by politically motivated and connected with his critique of the government, and required Azerbaijan to pay him compensation in the amount of 22,000 euros.
“What’s interesting is that the government fulfilled part of the ruling on payment of compensation, but at the same time left Ilgar behind bars. It follows that that the government recognizes the European Court’s ruling and paid compensation, but nevertheless will not fulfill the part of the ruling for Ilgar’s release. What an absurdity”, says Natig Jafarli in disbelief.
But the politician believes that, after the European Court’s second ruling, their leader will be set free. “So long as the government doesn’t declare force-majeure elections this year, then we’re going to nominate Ilgar Mammadov as our candidate in the next presidential elections, which should take place in 2018. But if Ilgar isn’t released by these elections, or if they put up other impediments, this will be additional evidence that the government is afraid of him as a strong leader.”