Azerbaijan, an oil-rich autocracy perched on the Western shores of the Caspian Sea, is determined to teach a lesson to its unruly youth who increasingly break long-standing taboos in pursuit of democratic freedoms. But the policy of sticks alone may no longer work.
A court in Baku recently sentenced a 22-year-old activist to 10 years in jail after he spray-painted “No to Dictatorship” and “Happy Slave Day” on a statue of Heydar Aliyev, the former president. The activist, Giyas Ibrahimov, a member of the pro-democracy youth movement N!DA, was arrested last spring with another of the group’s activists, Bayram Mammadov, hours after a photo of the graffiti was posted on Facebook. Both were later charged with drug possession – bogus and politically-motivated claims that served as a cover for a serious violation of the regime’s unwritten rules against challenging the cult of the ruling family.
The authorities wanted a particularly heavy sentence against the activists because of the sensitivity of defacing a statue of Heydar Aliyev, father of current president Ilham Aliyev. Moreover, the youth targeted the statue just a night before the late president’s birthday, which is widely celebrated in Azerbaijan as the “Flower Day”.
Bayram Mammadov still awaits a verdict in his case, but there is little doubt he will share the fate of the fellow activist. Erkin Gadirli, academic and member of the opposition REAL movement, said that Aliyev likely took the vandalism personally. “The punishment was so severe in order to teach a lesson to other activists: don’t you dare repeat this”, he said.
A former KGB general, Heydar Aliyev, ruled Azerbaijan with an iron hand for thirty years. Ilham inherited the presidency after the general’s death in 2003 and immediately began strengthening the cult of the former president as the father of the nation. Statues of Heydar are considered the most important symbol of that fatherhood and they had never before been publicly defaced.
At the end of his trial, before the verdict was issued, Ibrahimov said that the only law he had violated were “the rules of the corrupt system”. “The crime I committed is as white as the spray-paint I used”, he told the court in a speech. “The real reason I am here is that I, as a young student, dared to protest against the lies of the political system and the nihilist mind existing in this state, the country that I belong to.” His words seemed to resonate with those observing his trial, but they did little to move the court. The judge handed down even a harsher sentence than requested by the prosecutor, who in the case of Giyas Ibrahimov, had asked for 9, not 10 years in jail.
“Ilham Aliyev” has stolen 10 years of my son’s life, to make his son president” – Giyas Ibrahim’s mother told local media after leaving the courtroom. She meant the recent constitutional changes that had been passed in a referendum on September 28. Among them was a proposal to lift the age limit for presidential candidates. Many believe Mr. Aliyev pushed for the change to allow his son, a 19-year old Heydar junior, to run for office.
Both activists say their captures tortured them to force confessions. But this does not seem to have deterred Baku’s burgeoning youth activist movement. Just hours after the verdict, slogans of solidarity with the jailed men started appearing on Baku’s streets: “Free Giyas, and “Happy Slave Holiday: 10 years”. And in early November, two more youth activists were arrested in Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second-biggest city, for attempts to spray-paint another statue of Heydar Aliyev. “Instead of frightening other activists, the case of Giyas Ibrahimov and Bayram Mammadov seems to have inspired them”, Necmin Kamilsoy, a 22-year old N!IDA activist said. “The fear is broken”.