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Azerbaijan’s former ‘graffiti prisoner’ Bayram Mammadov found dead in Turkey

Bayram Mammadov. Photo courtesy of Vahid Aliyev shared with permission

May 10 marks the birthday of former president of Azerbaijan, Heydər Əliyev. Five years ago two men were jailed over spraying graffiti on the statue of the former president ahead of the celebrations. On May 2, 2021, one of the young men, Bayram Mammadov who was unlawfully jailed, was found dead in Istanbul. For friends and family of the former political prisoner, that sentence and the inhumane treatment during imprisonment is what ended his life abruptly, at the age of 26.

Theirs was an act of civil disobedience. In 2016, armed with spraying paint, two youth activists Bayram Mammadov and Giyas Ibrahimov, had a message to give. The two, sprayed “Qul Bayramınız Mübarək” (Happy Slave Day) and “F*** the system” on the statue of former president of Azerbaijan, Heydər Əliyev ahead of “Flower Celebration”, a day marking the birthday of the former president. Little did both men know that this would cost them three years of their lives, aside from being subjected to torture, and other forms of intimidation, not to mention permanent damage to their livelihood.

“Qul Bayramınız Mübarək” was a play on words – “Gül” in Azerbaijani means flower, while “Qul” means slave. When Giyas and Bayram were arrested, they were accused of drug possession. The ministry of the interior allegedly “found” two kilograms of heroin at both men's homes. In a sham trial, Giyas and Bayram were first sentenced to four months pretrial detention. In October 2016, Giyas, 21 at the time, was sentenced to ten years. While Bayram, 21, received similar sentence in December 2016. In March 2019 both men were pardoned and released from jail.

There were no celebrations in 2016. According to local media reports, President Ilham Aliyev (the son of the former head of state) cancelled all of the celebrations in memory of Azerbaijani soldiers who died during April clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Interestingly, just six years earlier, when a deadly shooting killed students and academics at Azerbaijan's State Oil Academy on April 30, the president, did not bother cancelling the celebrations.

In the following years, the celebrations that cost government coffers millions of dollars stopped all together.

The story behind the celebration

The tradition behind the Flower Day began in 2000 while Heydər Əliyev was still the president. Originally marked on May 11, as of 2004, it was celebrated on May 10 to mark the president's birthday (Heydər Əliyev died in 2003).

Although officials dismissed any questions about the costs of the Flower Day, some experts estimated millions of dollars. Economist Rovshan Agayev said the country footed a 117millionUSD bill for the lavish celebrations between 2004 and 2013. Each year, flowers from Europe, Latin America, U.S., Israel, and Turkey were purchased only to last for two days before they were cleaned up and thrown into trash.

The annual celebrations were a cause of criticism against the government by opposition groups calling for accountability. There was also the financial crisis, with the national currency plummeting at least twice in 2015 and 2016.

Some however speculated that the reason for cancelling the celebrations was the arrest of Bayram and Giyas.

The graffiti prisoners

The two activists were called “graffiti prisoners” or “statue prisoners”. In February 2020, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the trial, and the sentence of Bayram and Giyas was in violation of several articles of the European Convention on Human Rights and ordered the government of Azerbaijan to pay both men 36,000EUR (USD 43,700) in compensation.

Bayram was planning to use that money for his education abroad. He relocated to Istanbul, in November 2020, to study for English language exams, and continue applying to universities abroad.

His friends saw him last on April 29 before Turkey went into a countrywide lockdown.

The last time he talked to any of them was May 2. Later that afternoon, coast guards found his drowned body after eyewitnesses informed the police seeing a young man jump into the water.

His family and friends only learned of Bayram's death on May 4.

While investigation into his death is ongoing, Bayram's father, traveled to Istanbul to bring home his son for the final farewell. Bayram was buried on May 9, a day before the Flower Day celebration that got him jailed in 2016.

It is still too early to say what really happened to the young activist but one thing his friends agree on it was the unjust sentence and the inhumane treatment Bayram was put through while in jail. It is not easy to be a political activist in Azerbaijan. Intimidation, persecution, family pressure, and detention are common forms of punishment used in the country. Over the last decade, scores of activists, journalists and rights defenders have been prosecuted. Bayram was one of many voices the government tried to silence.

On May 10, 2021 two police officers were seen guarding the statue of the former president where five years ago, Bayram and Giyas became the “graffiti prisoners”.

Writing about his friend, Giyas, who is currently in Baku, said:

I find things extremely difficult to believe in; that it's been exactly five years and that exactly five years from now, and the following years, will be spent without Bayram.

Giyas was in Istanbul until recently, where he received a one-year residency permit. On April 16, 2021, while traveling to Azerbaijan, Giyas spent an hour being questioned by the airport police and was told that he has been placed on an indefinite travel ban. His residency permit was cancelled. No further explanation was given to Giyas. He is currently seeking legal remedy to find out what was the real cause behind his deportation.

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