In Azerbaijan women's rights activists protest outside the Ministry of the Interior

A symbolic coffin was placed outside the Ministry of the Interior in Baku to represent recent victims of domestic abuse. Screenshot from a video by Meydan TV.

A coffin covered with the names of domestic abuse victims was placed at the entrance of the Ministry of the Interior in Baku on July 30. The installation was organized by three representatives from a local feminist collective to combat increasing gender-based violence in Azerbaijan. At least five women were killed in Azerbaijan in July due to domestic violence.

The most recent victim, Nargiz Mustafayeva, was strangled to death on July 25 by her husband. Activists working on gender equality say that the country's legislation and police fail to ensure the safety and security of women in abusive situations.  According to one of the activists responsible for the protest, the symbolic coffin with names of last month's five victims was placed outside the government building in an effort to show the consequences of inaction.

Personnel from the Ministry of the Interior quickly removed the coffin while police detained all three women, releasing them shortly after questioning at a local police station.

Gender activists say that often when women seek help from law enforcement, officers’ first response is often reconciliation, which can further endanger female abuse survivors. “When victims of violence in Azerbaijan approach the police, they try to reconcile them with the perpetrator or the police discourage women from complaining. And as a result, the woman dies,” Aytaj Aghazade, one of the demonstration participants, told OC Media.

But Elshad Hajiyev, the head of media relations at the Ministry of the Interior dismissed these arguments in an interview with journalists following the demonstration, albeit not without a few controversial points:

Speaking generally, statements made here [at the demonstration] have no ground. We investigate all murder cases together with all other relevant government authorities. It is impossible that no action is taken for each individual case. The Ministry of the Interior staff implements the existing norms and procedures as per existing legislation. I assure you, that none of the cases/complaints received, approached carelessly.

You know very well that today, in our society there are certain values of morality. That is why we can't just place an officer on duty in front of any home. That is also why, we cannot just release all of the information to the public about cases of abuse – there are children involved in the process, there are other family members. We must take into account the values of morality as a result. So it is natural in such circumstances that police tries help the couple rekindle their relationship.

Police will only intervene in cases where there is a victim, or signs of abuse. But of course it all depends on the investigations carried out not only by the police but by other relevant institutions. In case there is proof, and if the citizen really has been subject to pressure, and if [this pressure] continues and there are real facts of injury based on forensics, then this becomes a violation of rights. Then these victims are placed in shelters and their rights become protected.

After being asked whether femicides are a political issue, Hajiyev refuted that too. “To say that femicides are political is a political statement in itself. There is no such thing in Azerbaijan. Such statements are not based on facts or any evidence.” But activists claim the five victims last month presents a different picture.

Some activists are campaigning for Azerbaijan to adopt the Istanbul Convention, an international convention on eliminating violence against women.

One of the protest organizers and participants, Gulnara Mehdiyeva told OC Media that these murders were political and stem from a lack of legal and protective measures:

We believe that the killings of women are political, and that the current killings are the result of the state’s lack of security for women, the lack of assistance needed by women victims, and the police’s indifference to such appeals. That is why we protested in front of the ministry.

According to Azerbaijan’s State Statistical Committee, there were at least 1,180 cases of domestic violence against women in 2020. But activists say the numbers are likely higher, given the stigma around gender-based domestic abuse in Azerbaijan, which was highlighted in a report released in 2020.

Many of the activists behind campaigns to raise awareness about femicides, and domestic abuse, have often themselves been targets of abuse and violence. Scores of women were targeted online this year, in what looked like a coordinated harassment campaign. Police and local officials have never allowed activists to organize an International Women's Day march, which for some, raises questions about the government's commitment to eliminating inequality and violence against women.

Five days after the statement made by Elshad Hajiyev and assurances that the state addresses all complaints of abuse, Sevinc Maharramova, 23, who sought help in March of this year after accusing her husband of domestic abuse, was reportedly murdered by her husband. He cut her head off.

When activists were helping Maharramova in March, local law enforcement refused to provide any assistance. Local activists found her a safe house, a lawyer, and employment. In a live video about Maharramova's death that Gulnara Mehdiyeva shared on Facebook, she highlighted the lack of investigation into Maharramova's complaint in March.

Police never detained her husband for the physical abuse. When her lawyer was finally able to open a criminal case on the grounds of torture the husband, never showed up in court. Without any proof, he just called and said he was infected with Covid. Just when the Maharammova was recovering, one day she called me and said that she cannot handle it anymore and that she was going back to her husband because of the kids. He used her children against her.

This story was updated to include the most recent case of domestic abuse on August 3, 2021.

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