Between four walls: The suppressed voices of peace in Azerbaijan

Image by Alex Shah

In the heart of the South Caucasus, where history and geopolitics collide, Azerbaijan’s civil society has found itself at the center of a tumultuous storm. Human rights activists, journalists, and dissidents have endured years of hardship under the authoritarian rule of the Aliyev dynasty. The autocratic policies of this regime have not only curtailed their fundamental rights but have also subjected them to the darkest side of oppression.

It’s a landscape where the very act of speaking out often comes at a steep cost, both in terms of personal sacrifice and the relentless pressure they face.

Ilham Aliyev gained significant popularity among the Azerbaijani public after the country secured victory in the second Karabakh War and regained control over territories that were previously under Armenia’s control.

The victory has cast a shadow over the ongoing economic and social challenges in the country.

Three years after the 44-day war and following the September 19, 2023, military operation into Nagorno-Karabakh, President Aliyev is determined to maintain his grip on power. Through strict authoritarian policies, the state continues to obstruct the actions of civil society, impose restrictions on journalists, and subject activists to unlawful detentions. The people have been stripped of their rights to free assembly, speech, expression, and organization.

Repression against rising voices

Shortly after, Azerbaijan declared that it had initiated “anti-terror” operations in Nagorno-Karabakh in September 2023, and a wave of successive arrests of activists ensued. Journalists and activists who openly expressed their anti-war opinions and called for peace were reprimanded for their criticism and faced administrative detentions.

Among the targeted activists at the time was Afiaddin Mammadov. Mammadov faced multiple arrests throughout the year for his persistent protests. On September 20, Mammadov was arrested and sent into pretrial custody on bogus hooliganism charges. If convicted, he could face eight years behind bars.

Ahmad Mammadli, a member of Democracy 18, an opposition political movement, a human rights activist, and a former political prisoner, told Global Voices that the pressure against peace activists is not new and that it started around the second Karabakh war in 2020.

“Since September 2020, mass detentions and persecution of ‘No War’ activists, who were against the war, have been observed. The same pattern continued in the following years, with similar incidents occurring in September [2023]. The government's aim is to suppress and isolate political and social activists.”

Mammadli recalls how he and his “Democracy 18″ movement faced unexpected pressure and targeting after their pro-peace statements.

“In September 2022, as I made calls for Ilham Aliyev to be brought to international court for his actions against both the Azerbaijani and Armenian people, I was detained. I was about to leave to pursue my education abroad but my exit from the country was prohibited, my right to education was violated, I was imprisoned for 30 days, and a fake criminal case was initiated against me, leading to my suspension from the university,” Mammadli told Global Voices.

Since the 44-day war in 2020, the authorities have arrested more than 20 activists, according to Mammadli’s documentation and monitoring.

Ali Malikov, an LGBTQ+ activist and blogger, also faced harassment at the hands of the state due to their anti-war sentiments. 

“I remember receiving hundreds of images of decapitated Armenian bodies from foreign phone numbers. I faced multiple hacking attempts on my personal Facebook profile. State-controlled media and well-known state-affiliated pages shared my personal information, labeling me as ‘pro-Armenian’ because I was against the war. One media outlet broadcasted a video of me from a protest. The Telegram channel ‘Xainləri tanıyaq’ [know the traitors] published my personal photos. All of this was due to my involvement in a signature campaign calling for peace. Most recently, Yeni Musavat online newspaper published my name on their site, claiming I attended an event that was against the war, but that is not true because I never did.”

In the context of Azerbaijan, the war also diverted attention away from the human rights issues in the country, say activists interviewed by Global Voices. Meanwhile, President Aliyev consolidated his power further, receiving the backing of a fervent nationalist base. If there was one thing the state and the opposition were in agreement, it was the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh. The victory following the second war empowered Aliyev; while the people forgot about their grievances, the opposition once used to galvanize support against the president and the ruling government. This helped President Aliyev and the ruling government suppress and marginalize dissenting groups, including the traditional opposition groups, and by labeling them traitors, effectively silence their protests and grievances. 

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