In Azerbaijan, the stakes are always high for political activists

Image by Alex Shah

Azerbaijan’s civil society has never had it easy. The costs have always been high for those willing to speak out for what they believe in — often, if not always, outweighing the benefits. Any prospects for political change are grimmer than ever. A series of recent arrests targeting journalists and political activists attests to the bleak reality on the ground.

The 29-year-old Araz Aliyev is one of the recently targeted civic activists. A teacher by profession, Aliyev is also one of seven founders of a new political initiative, the Third Republic. The platform was formed on December 7, 2023, a date that coincides with the founding of the Azerbaijani Parliament. Among its many goals is to transition Azerbaijan to a modern democratic political system, restore trust in public administration and electoral system, and eliminate corruption, to name a few.

A few weeks after the announcement of the platform, Aliyev went missing on December 23. The same day, Akif Gurbanov, who is the spokesperson of the newly formed platform, said he, too, was followed that same day. In an interview with Voice of America, Gurbanov said he was having lunch across the street from his office when he noticed a group of plain-clothed men using wireless communication devices and watching him. Gurbanov said he was in touch with Araz Aliyev that day until Aliyev left the office for a meeting. Prior to going missing, Aliyev informed Gurbanov that he had reached his destination and had not noticed any unusual activity.

Neither Aliyev’s whereabouts nor the potential charges he was facing were made public. It was only on December 25 that the Ministry of Internal Affairs confirmed that Aliyev was arrested and sentenced to 25 days in administrative detention on charges of minor hooliganism and disobeying the police. Aliyev refuted these charges and said his arrest was directly linked to his involvement with the Third Republic. The activist also told his lawyer, Nemet Karimli, that he was forced into the car against his will on December 23, where he was subjected to physical pressure. He was then taken to the police station, where he faced intimidation.

Global Voices spoke with Gulara Ismayilova, Aliyev’s wife, about her husband’s work and career in politics.

Ismayilova herself is a feminist activist. A graduate of Political Science, Ismayilova joined Azerbaijani civic space in 2023.  She met Aliyev in 2016 at a training session in the capital, Baku, and the two hit it off immediately. Ismayilova was attracted to Aliyev's spirit, feminist ideologies, and politics.

Ismayilova sensed something was off when her husband did not answer her call the day he went missing. The couple has a safety check-in mechanism in place. “The day of his disappearance, he did not answer any of my calls and missed the scheduled meeting. I felt shaken and stressed. But also bold and strong,” Ismayilova told Global Voices.

According to Ismayilova, Aliyev has been involved in social and political activism since 2011. He holds degrees in International Relations, Political Science, and Economics.

He continues his academic research and specializes in the history of politics and philosophy. He is also the author of numerous articles and studies and is one of the founders of the Baku Academy of Philosophy.

As soon as Aliyev went missing, Ismayilova rolled up her sleeves, knowing that she had to do her best to draw attention to her husband's case. When he went missing, she was the first to inform the local media. On December 24, she staged a protest outside the Ministry of the Interior, demanding information on her husband’s whereabouts. She was told to return the next day as it was outside the visiting hours. Ismayilova also got in touch with the Ombudsman office.

In an interview with Global Voices, Ismayilova confirmed how difficult it was to get any information on her husband’s whereabouts when he went missing. “The district police told me he would come home soon and that I should not worry,” recalled Ismayilova. “My last chance was to publicize that he went missing, so I decided to stage a protest.”

Image by Alex Shah

She also said the police were rude to her. When she showed up at the police station to write a statement, the deputy there, Mushfig Gozalov, said he would arrest her if he saw her at this year’s feminist protest. “He told me he would arrest me and sent me into three months detention,” she told Global Voices.

Since 2019, a collective of feminist activists has held women’s marches every year to mark International Women’s Day. They also stage protests to raise awareness about women’s rights in the country. Police violence has become routine during the protests.

On January 17, Araz Aliyev was released from administrative detention. Speaking to journalists following his release, Aliyev recounted how he was pressured to testify against other political and civic activists, which he refused to do despite continued threats. “They told me if I agreed to their proposal, I would be released the next day, and my sentence would be replaced with a fine. Otherwise, it would all end for me,” Aliyev told the journalists.

The arrest of Aliyev and others is unfolding as Azerbaijan is scheduled to hold a snap presidential election on February 7, 2024. According to the preliminary report released by the  Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) mission, the upcoming election in which President Ilham Aliyev will run again is taking place without significant competition for the incumbent and in an environment where concerns over “the exercise of fundamental freedoms of association, peaceful assembly, and expression,” have been voiced by the local civil society.

Since November, scores of journalists and political activists have been either sentenced to pre-trial detention or administrative detention on bogus charges. On January 16, the US State Department urged Azerbaijan to respect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all, including those exercising freedom of expression and said the recent wave of arrests of journalists, civil society activists, and opposition figures was “deeply troubling.”

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