In Azerbaijan, feminist activists say not the time to celebrate

Image courtesy Arzu Geybullayeva

Three women, with a hand drawn over their throats, staged a flash  mob on the premises of the US Embassy in Azerbaijan's capital Baku during the Fourth of July celebrations hosted by the embassy. All three were eventually escorted out of the embassy and a journalist covering the flash mob was handed over to the local police with his hands twisted behind his back as if he were a criminal. The activists saw the event as an opportunity to remind the guests that a time while village residents were being silenced, media was censored and rights abuses were rampant in Azerbaijan was not the right time for drinking wine and having a good time. All four were taken to one of the local police stations, from where they were released after questioning.

According to Sanubar Heydarova, one of the activists who took part in the flash mob, “When they were taking us away, the Ambassador was standing right next to us. When I called his name, he looked the other way.”

In a statement to Azerbaijan Service for Radio Liberty, the embassy said “The US Embassy supports fundamental freedoms, including freedom of protest and expression” and that “Only some parts of the official program were open to the media. The main part was to network, share the diversity of the United States and celebrate the official event.” No further remarks were made about the way the activists and journalist Ulvi Hasanli were escorted or treated.

“In Azerbaijan rights are being violated. [The state and the police] are holding people by their throats,” said Heydarova as she removed the scarf covering her throat as the three activists entered the premises of the embassy. Gulnara Mehdiyeva, who too took part in the flash mob said, “today both opposition and state representatives have gathered here to celebrate the independence of another country. Meanwhile in Azerbaijan independence is completely suffocated, the voices of media and the people are suffocated, activists are arrested and tortured and this is how we are protesting the current environment in a civilized manner.”

“No member of the parliament or a minister have spoken about the torture and rights violations of residents of Söyüdlü village. So they have time to come here but no time to make statements about their own country,” said third activist, Narmin Shahmarzade.

Hasanli later wrote, “Embassy security twisted my arms after I started filming the activists staging the flash mob and handed me over to the local police. I did not expect such violent behavior on the territory of the embassy. This was an interference with my journalistic activities. Also, I did not expect that the peacefully protesting feminists — Narmin Shahmarzade, Gulnara Mehdiyeva and Sanubar Heydarova — would be handed over to the police. This is a shameful incident. This time I was worried about the US Embassy. The embassy of a country that talks about democracy and human rights and freedom of the press should not have behaved in this way.”

In an interview with the Ismail Djalilov, host of the YouTube show “Lets talk straight,” Hasanli said all of four were treated as if they were terrorists, or had committed a crime.

A representative of the press office approached me as I started filming the activists, telling me, that I did not have a permission to film here and asked whether I had an accreditation. Even though I already filmed the speeches of the Ambassador, the garden of the embassy where the reception was held. Surely, filming the flash mob could have been problematic, but in that case, they could have simply asked us to leave. It was shameful that instead they handed us over to Azerbaijani police, the very same structure the US State Department is critical of.

“This was shameful and they should apologize,” said Hasanli.

Gulnara Mehdiyeva later wrote on Facebook that the women staged the flash mob after the formal part of the reception was over.

We took off our scarves in front of the local authorities during the informal part of the event and spoke to Ulvi Hasanli on camera. For those who are talking about ethics, I will say that the biggest unethical thing is to happily celebrate someone else's independence against the background of oppression and brutality happening in the country.

On its official Facebook page, the embassy wrote, “The annual reception celebrated American road trips and showcased both the diversity of the American cultural landscape and the vibrant, multi-faceted cooperation between the United States and Azerbaijan.”

At least ten political activists left the embassy premises following the extraction of feminist activists and Hasanli.

Protests in Söyüdlü

Since June 20, residents of Söyüdlü village, located in the Gadabay district in western Azerbaijan, have been protesting the environmental damage caused as a result of gold mining in the village and objecting to the construction plans for a second artificial lake. Residents say the existing artificial lake, built in 2012, is used to dump toxic waste from the mine, according to reporting by Meydan TV and OC Media. The waste is poisoning the drinking water with severe consequences on residents’ health. The protests quickly escalated as a result of disproportionate state response, with reports of several local residents arrested and fined, journalists battered, and civic activists critical of the state response to the protests facing detention in the capital Baku.

On June 22, police installed checkpoints for entry into the village, verifying address registrations of anyone trying to enter the village. At least one resident has been missing for four days, according to reporting by Meydan TV, and police arrested two men, who recently returned from Russia, for having created a WhatsApp group. Residents say the group was created during the pandemic, and the two men came to attend a funeral. Another resident, who printed the posters held by the village residents, was also reportedly detained and is facing drug possession charges.

One of the detained activists is former political prisoner Giyas Ibrahimov. He has been sentenced to 30 days in administrative detention on bogus charges of resisting police. On June 24, new charges were leveled against the activist, this time accusing Ibrahimov of spreading prohibited information on the internet.

Start the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.