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THE word flower in the Azerbaijani language is written like this: “Gul.” Were you to change the first letter to a Q, then it would read:“Qul,” which means slave.
One night three years ago, the then 21-year-old journalism student Qiyas Ibrahimov and his friend Bayram Mammadov decided to use this particular quirk of their mother tongue to make a political point.
“May 10 every year is celebrated as the founder of our autocratic regime Heydar Aliyev’s birthday,” Ibrahimov says.
“On that day the regime celebrates the event with a flower festival, in the same way the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s birthday is celebrated.”
Heydar came to power in a military coup in 1993 and remained the country’s autocrat until his death in 2003. His son, Ilham Aliyev, has been the president since his death.
Dotted around the capital Baku are giant statues of Heydar in various benevolent poses and on that night in 2016, Ibrahimov and Mammadov decided to decorate one with the words “Happy slave day,” “Fuck the system,” and the anarchist circled-A symbol in spray paint.
“In this country, open political activism sooner or later ends in prison time. The government may warn you once or twice, but should you continue, long-term imprisonment is guaranteed.”
But it wasn’t vandalism that landed Ibrahimov and Mammadov in jail. Like most activists who end up in trouble with the law in Azerbaijan, they were accused of drug trafficking, “the traditional punishment practiced by the Aliyev regime against oppositional views and political activism,” Ibrahimov says.
“We were taken to the police station, tortured and forced to sign a confession saying we were selling heroin.
“The police did offer us a lesser sentence if we agreed to lay flowers at Heydar’s monument and ask for forgiveness on national TV. But we refused.
“And because we continued to oppose the regime, even during the investigation period, our punishment was severe.
“My prosecutor was seeking to put me away for nine years. But judge Anvar Seyidov sentenced me to 10.
“Every public servant in the country, no matter how high their rank, tries hard to please the government in order to use it to their own benefit later.
“This is the system Haydar Aliyev founded.”
Ibrahimov only spent three years in jail, thanks in part to the European Union’s omnicidal urge for more fossil fuels, and the Azerbaijani government’s need to appeal to European sensibilities in order to keep the millions of euros rolling in.
The two entities have been busy negotiating a new trade agreement as part of the EU-Azerbaijan Co-operation Council. Both sides want the deal done so as to clear a path, both metaphorically and literally, for the South Gas Corridor — a 2,200-mile series of pipelines bring Azerbaijani fossil fuel gas to Italy, which environmental campaigners 350 describe as a “controversial project that will lock us into decades of emissions that practically guarantee climate chaos.”
On March 16, a few weeks before the Co-operation Council began negotiations, Aliyev issued a presidential decree ordering the release of 399 people from jail, including Ibrahimov and Mammadov.
“Only 51 of the pardoned were political prisoners or social activists. More politically motivated prisoners are still in jail. It is not known whether the other prisoners will ever be freed.
“The danger of re-arrest for the pardoned ones like myself persists. My friend Bayram has already been harassed by the authorities.
“Only two weeks after the pardon he was arrested, tortured and detained for 30-days.
“They beat him up badly and asked why he continued to write posts against the authorities on Facebook and why he told a newspaper he had no regrets about [drawing graffiti on] Heydar’s monument.”
Annoyed at his friend’s arrest, Ibrahimov wrote a post on Facebook calling Aliyev a “moron and a dictator.” The police did not take kindly to this.
“Had I not informed the media that the police were outside my house, they would have arrested me again.
“Instead, the chief of police threatened me. He said: ‘If you think that police cannot arrest you for insulting the president on social media, you are wrong’.
“‘One day while you’re out walking, you might face great violence from the president’s fans.”
“So, if regime can’t finish me by the hands of state agencies, they can order others to punish me. It is total mafia style.
“The regime’s desire for political prisoners is to keep the people in fear. This government has no intention to democratise. And to keep the throne they will continue to arrest anyone who opposes Ilham Aliyev’s rule.”
Apparently the EU raised the country’s human rights abuses during the new trade deal negotiations. But the regime’s litany of crimes hasn’t stopped private Western corporations from tearing up its fossil fuels.
“The people here don’t benefit from the financial benefits Europe has granted the country. It is the same situation with the profits from the oil and gas exports.
“Ilham Aliyev’s government steals everything the people have because they’re kleptocrats.
“Our political elite has been buying European politics for a long time.”
Because Azerbaijan willingly sells its natural resources to the West and allows Western corporations to dig them up, Britain’s government has no problem with Aliyev’s regime.
In fact BP — which is not only playing a leading role in the destruction of our environment, pays absolutely no tax in Britain but does receives hundreds of millions of pounds in taxpayer subsidies — is the lead corporation working on the Southern Gas Corridor.
“The 19th-century British imperialist Cecil Rhodes once said: ‘In order to save the forty million inhabitants of the United Kingdom from a bloody civil war, our colonial statesmen must acquire new lands for settling the surplus population of this country, to provide new markets…’
“Today, Azerbaijan is in a target for capitalist globalisation.
“These target countries do not get much attention from Western human rights organisations, thus this problem remains unresolved.
“Sometimes it feels like great powers of the West look at Azerbaijan the way Cecil Rhodes would.
“British officials do not address human rights issues during their visits to Baku. One British baroness visited Azerbaijan a couple of times but due to her economic interests, she met only with the members of the despotic regime.
“Frankly speaking, BP has played an important role in the destruction of political democracy in Azerbaijan.
“The company has interfered in most political processes in the country in order to protect its own capital and position.
“The whole economy is dependent on the oil sector and BP employs many people in the industry, who aren’t allowed any union representation.
“We don’t have unions because of BP’s agreement with the Azerbaijani government. Perhaps we could say that, instead of supporting the democratisation of Azerbaijan, Britain today is playing an active role in crushing it under Aliyev’s feet.
“My country’s future looks very dark right now. I do not see my life outside of this country, I doubt that anything good is waiting for me ahead.
“I do not see my life beyond fighting this despotic regime. This kind of a lifestyle under this kind of a dictatorship is very dangerous.
“I want a bright future for the people of my country but the future will not happen on its own. We are the ones who have to bring it, with or without Britain’s support.”
As regular Star readers may remember, my articles on Azerbaijan’s sketchy human rights record recently caught the attention of Baku’s ambassador to Britain Tahir Taghizade, who wrote a letter of complaint.
Before publishing this interview, I thought Ibrahimov should know this. He said: “I appreciate you worrying about it, but don’t. Talking is not dangerous for me.
“I am ready to report the truth about the oppressed people of my country to our comrades in other countries of world. Thank you for your solidarity with us.”
Ben Cowles is the Star’s web editor. You can tweet with him on @Cowlesz. Zamira Abbasova translated Qiyas Ibrahimov’s answers.
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