Blood and democracy: the fight for animal rights in Azerbaijan

Image by Ulviyya Ali, shared with permission.

Kamran Mammadli, 27, is a vegan activist from Azerbaijan and is part of the animal rights movement. He has been engaged in animal rights activism since the movement began to gain momentum in Azerbaijan in 2018. Since then, he has been detained several times during animal rights protests, most recently on October 4, when the movement organized a protest against the culling of stray dogs.

The activists demanded to end systemic violence against and the shooting of strays, and called to shut down Toplan, a state-operated establishment to care for stray dogs which reportedly brutally culls the animals instead, according to activists’ accounts. At least six other animal rights activists were detained by the police during the rally on October 4. All have since been released.

Twice, the issue of strays made the headlines in Azerbaijan. In 2015, when Azerbaijan hosted the European Games, reports of mass killings of stray dogs put Azerbaijan in the spotlight. In 2019 during the preparations to host the Formula 1 race, strays were back on the agenda. One lawmaker reportedly called to kill all stray dogs, citing Soviet practices.

To deal with the issue of strays, the Baku City Executive Authority and the Heydar Aliyev Foundation launched Toplan, a shelter for homeless dogs where they were meant to be sterilized and kept until adoption. President Ilham Aliyev's daughter attended the center's official opening ceremony in 2019. A few months after its opening, a video circulating online showed the center's employee using violence and beating one of the caught strays. The center then said they fired the employee. But the abuse continued, according to animal rights activists.

Despite activists’ repeated calls for the center to open its doors to volunteers and share data on the center's activities, its procedures are still opaque. In 2021, at least three separate protests were held outside Toplan, all dispersed by the police, with some of the activists receiving hefty fines and detentions. Speaking to Jam-News at the time, Mammadli said for the activists, “the lack of transparency in Toplan's work raised concerns.” Mammadli also said the center did not allow volunteers to come and care for the strays. “We demand transparency of Toplan’s activities, opening their activities to public, the return of sterilized and vaccinated dogs to the territory where they were taken away from.”

During the protest on October 4, the animal rights activists once again repeated their demands about the Center.

A torturous method of killing

Activists say that the Toplan center collects dogs from central Baku each day. They are then taken further from the capital, where they are often shot.

In an interview with OC Media, Mammadli said if dogs were shot in the center of Baku, it would be visible to the residents, who would film and publicize the videos. Shooting dogs in less populous areas allows the authorities to keep this activity hidden from the public view.

Mammadli then said the practice was not just cruel, but illegal, according to both Azerbaijan’s legislation and the European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals, to which Azerbaijan is a signatory.

Neither the Heydar Aliyev Foundation nor the head of its public relations department responded to OC Media when contacted for comment.

Defending animal rights, risking their own

In defending the rights of animals, activists put themselves at significant risk. Azerbaijani animal rights activists report that, while all their activism is peaceful and falls within the country’s legislation, they often face pressure and violence from the state. So far, all protests by animal rights activists were prevented or dispersed by the police. Activists are often detained, and following their release, they report to the media that they faced violence and threats from the police.

“The police generally treats us as enemies. It's as if they've been instructed to shout first when animal rights activists arrive, then twist their arms. Once at the police station, they twisted my arm with an intention of breaking it. Suddenly, I fell on my knees and started screaming,” said Nijat Ismayil, an animal rights activist.

Another time, he was strangled while being held at a police station, so much so that he could not eat for three days.

Mammadli had similar stories to share. “There were many cases where I was physically assaulted while being taken to the police station, as well as at the station, and suffered injuries,” he told OC Media. “When we hold protests, they violently arrest us and take us to police stations. We are also punished with baseless fines.”

In August 2021, two employees of the Toplan Animal Care Centre filed a lawsuit against four protesters who had taken part in protests against the centre. Ismayilov was one of the four accused, alongside Elkhan Mirzayev, Aynur Babazade, and Ilhama Nasirova.

The employees alleged they were defamed, their public reputation damaged, and that they were publicly humiliated. Activists consider these claims baseless and believe that this case was opened against them by the authorities seeking another way to exert pressure on them.

“This court case has now dragged for a year. The employees of the Toplan Centre demand we payAZN 100,000 (USD 59,000) in compensation. If the court rules against us, we will take the case to the European Court of Human Rights,” said Ismayil.

Hope for the future

For activists like Mammadli, the issue of animal rights is closely tied to broader political repression. Because the state is anti-democratic, the activists have very little power to influence the actions of the authorities and stop animal rights abuses by the Toplan Centre. “As long as there is no transition to democratic governance in Azerbaijan, the process of fulfilling our demands will be slow. For this reason, democratic changes are our additional demands,” Mammadli told OC Media. It is these demands that have turned animal rights activists into a target. “The emergence of a new protest force exposing the state’s crimes in the country worries the authorities. We see that clearly,” noted Mammadli.

According to him, the issues of animal rights and human rights are closely tied, with many animal rights activists also campaigning for other causes, such as queer rights and political oppression.

Mammadli is still hopeful. He is now working on building a vegan activist team in Azerbaijan, and his fellow activists run animal rights campaigns on social media, alongside their ongoing campaigning against the Toplan. “I also think that changes in people’s attitudes towards animals will significantly change the people of Azerbaijan, and that no matter obstacles and challenges we should be able to overcome them,” added Mammadli.

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