On May 14, a group of civil society activists held a rally in Azerbaijan's capital, Baku, demanding an end to impunity against government critics, political activists, and journalists. The organizers of the event said the decision to hold the rally was triggered by the violent targeting of political activists and journalists.
The most recent attack took place on the night of May 8, when an unknown man threatened veteran journalist Aytan Mammadova at knifepoint in the elevator of her apartment building. Mammadova had been reporting on a high-profile murder trial. The assailant also threatened and cursed the journalist's minor daughter.
In April, political activist Bakhtiyar Hajiyev was kidnapped and taken to an undisclosed location where he was beaten by men wearing masks. Another high profile case is that of veteran opposition political activist Tofig Yagublu, who was detained during a rally in December 2021. Images of his injuries were subsequently shared on social media — yet, according to the results of an investigation launched by the authorities, the police had no involvement in the physical injuries the activist sustained.
With their #WeDoNotWantCriminalState protest campaign, activists are seeking justice in recent notorious cases:
-Tofig Yagublu, politician, tortured in police custody;
-Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, known activist, kidnapped and insulted;
– Aytan Mammadova, journalist, attacked with knife.
— Najmin Kamilsoy (@necminkamil) May 14, 2022
Police violence documented
The rally was not without police violence. Journalist Ulviyya Ali reported that police had kicked her in the back, but when she tried taking a picture of the officer, he quickly hid his face behind a medical mask.
Another rally participant, 17-year-old Ali Malikov, was beaten by the police. The violence was captured on video. Describing the experience, Malikov said in a Facebook post:
This is what the Ministry of the Interior of [the] Azerbaijan Republic [is] like. Although the police were told I was a minor, they pulled my hair and threw me on the ground. And then looked me in the eye as they stomped over the flag.
Malikov was holding a rainbow flag at the time. He later shared a video of the bruises that were left on his body as a result of the police violence:
Bayrağımı əlimdən alıb üzümə gülə-gülə təpikləyirdi @polisazerbaycan işçiləri. Aksiya boyu da bədənimizi əlləyirdilər, söyürdülər. İştirakçıları zorakılıqla aparıblar. Çox gözəl idik, çox gözəl qışqırırdıq dövlətə qarşı. Təkrarən deyirik;#kriminaldövlətistəmirik 🏳️⚧️ pic.twitter.com/D1hyheEHQf
— Əli Məlikov ☮︎ (@Elimelikov06) May 14, 2022
Police officers took my flag and then kicked me in my face as they laughed. Throughout the rally, [police] kept touching our bodies, and swearing at us. [Police] used violence as they detained rally participants. We were very beautiful, and chanted beautifully against the authorities. We repeat, we do not want a criminal state.
In another video, Ruslan Izzetli, political activist and the former leader of the opposition movement D18, explained how he was stopped by two black jeeps while on his way to the protest. According to Izzetli, he was in the car with two other political activists who were also detained. Three plain clothes officers put Izzetli in one of the cars and drove him some 100 km outside of Baku, apparently to prevent him from participating in the rally.
Meanwhile, rally participants chanted slogans like “We don't want a criminal state,” and “Don't kill justice, stop the crime.” Although police at first surrounded the demonstrators, preventing them from moving forward, the crowd was eventually allowed to continue along their route:
#WeDoNotWantCriminalState protest update:
Protesters are now allowed to move forward. Still surrounded by policemen, they are marching towards the ministry.
“We do not want police state” activists are chanting. pic.twitter.com/qWHPpaiHnE
— Najmin Kamilsoy (@necminkamil) May 14, 2022
As many as 26 protesters were detained, although according to Meydan TV, which had journalists and camera people at the scene, they were all released later in the day.
Undeterred by the actions of the police, participants read out their statement condemning crimes against activists and journalists as they congregated outside of the Ministry of the Interior at the end of the rally.
Unexpected parallels with the Wizarding World
Prior to the rally, one of the organizers, Gulnara Mehdiyeva, was discussing the upcoming event online. A Harry Potter fan, she was wearing a Quibbler necklace and asked her Twitter followers whether they could make any connections between the necklace and the protest. She later explained the link in a series of tweets:
Quibbler was an independent media. When the ministry tried to hide Voldemort's return, only Quibbler wrote the truth, and the paper was therefore banned at Hogwarts. Voldemort's men kidnapped the daughter of Quibbler's founder and pressured him not to support Harry Potter. So I made the connection when journalist Aytan Mammadov was threatened and pressured over her daughter to stop reporting.
Ahead of the rally, Mehdiyeva tweeted yet another reference to Harry Potter:
Sabahkı yürüşlə bağlı bəyanatım 💃🏻 pic.twitter.com/fy4EmWlrZG
— Призрак прошлого рождества (Səmt Küləyi) (@ZenenXeylagi) May 13, 2022
My statement about tomorrow's rally.
For Mehdiyeva and many other activists, the scenes in Baku were far too reminiscent of Voldemort and his army trying to silence dissent, but for today at least, the police failed to muzzle their voices.
Editor's note: this story was edited to change Ruslan Izzetli's affiliation with D18 movement. Izzetli is the former leader of the movement.