The 19-year-old Azerbaijani man claims he awoke one morning in mid-August to the sound and feel of gasoline splashing on his body and his mother angrily screaming. Through a sleepy haze, he saw her burning a piece of paper. Suddenly, he alleged, his mother’s intentions became clear; he was about to be burned to death for being homosexual.
The Facebook photo showing a hand holding an Azerbaijani passport came with a simple message: “I stand with Israel.” For a majority Shi’a Muslim country, that may not be an expected position to take on the conflict in Gaza between Israel and Palestinians; a struggle that has left hundreds of civilians dead or displaced since July.
For Azerbaijan, this week has been a busy one. But, critics charge, not in the way you might expect from a country that holds a leadership position in Europe’s senior human-rights body, the Council of Europe.
On July 14, 57-year-old Hasan Huseynli, a prominent, regional non-governmental-organization leader, was sentenced to roughly six years in prison for allegedly illegally carrying weapons and supposedly wounding a person with a knife.
It was a charge that took even the usually reserved US embassy aback. “Given his mild manner and history of promoting civic engagement and education, it is virtually impossible to believe Huseynli used a knife against a local resident, as the prosecution claimed,” the embassy said in a statement.
Previously, Huseynli was the head of Ganja Education Information Center established in 1998. The center helped young Azerbaijanis interested in graduate and undergraduate education abroad, especially in the United States.
For the past ten years, Huseynli, who has acted as a source for this reporter, has run the Ganja-based Intelligent Citizen Enlightenment Center Public Union (Kamil Vətəndaş" Maarifləndirmə Mərkəzi İctimai Birliyi), a center that organizes various youth-related activities to encourage civil society in western Azerbaijan.
Most of its financing came from foreign sources; a fact likely to raise an eyebrow in certain circles in Baku, given ongoing government suspicions about NGO registrations.*
EurasiaNet.org spoke with Zeynallov in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, where he is now living.
What stands behind your deportation? Is it the next step by [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan’s government to silence the media?
This is the first time in Turkish history since World War II that an elected government has that much influence on the Turkish media and putting [a] tremendous amount of pressure on media bosses to fire critical journalists while co-opting others. My deportation is part of this troubling trend, no doubt about that. It has resonated around the world because the deportation came over a pair of tweets, which the government of Erdoğan claimed to be portraying his administration as . . .one protecting al-Qaeda. My English account is followed by foreign journalists, activists, academics, politicians and other public figures. Erdoğan was disturbed to see I was spreading a news report that he didn't want to be displayed.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev was once dubbed corruption’s “Person of the Year” by an organization of investigative journalists. But to many Azerbaijani citizens, he is seen as more trustworthy than the courts, recent survey data shows.
More than 25 years after its creation, a party game that enables participants to pretend they are Mafia hitmen remains wildly popular in Azerbaijan. Some regular players contend that the game is a reflection of daily reality.
Faced with the prospect of potential arrest, police abuse or harassment, few Azerbaijani women seem willing to stick out their necks these days to take a public stance on issues. But for one group of practicing Shi’a Muslim women, the risks are not a deterrent to protesting.
While there are numerous touchstones of tension in Azerbaijan, including corruption and income inequality, local analysts say it’s unlikely that religion will emerge as a major fault line in Azerbaijani society for the foreseeable future.
While Turkey remains Azerbaijan’s chief strategic partner, officials in Baku are taking steps to upgrade relations with Pakistan. The diplomatic push is part of Baku’s plan to bolster its hand in its dealings over the future of Nagorno-Karabakh.