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Part 1: The End of the Civil Society

In the first part of a series of articles on the breakdown of Azerbaijani civil society, Azerbaijani democracy activist Ahmad Mammadli writes about the persecution of religious individuals in Azerbaijan.

For the past three years in Azerbaijan (after the Second Karabakh War), articles about those imprisoned will be divided into three parts: the arrests of religious people, the arrests against political organizations and civil society, and the arrests faced by those who were deported to Azerbaijan when they returned from abroad.

PART I – The persecution of the religious community

In Azerbaijan, the never-ending wave of arrests, increasing and decreasing at certain intervals for the past 30 years, did not take any political turning point during the post-war period.

For the last three years, since the Azerbaijani government and the opposition proclaimed the “victorious people,” the worsening social conditions and the pains of the pandemic are not forgotten. 

Because Azerbaijan still has its land borders closed. Formally it is due to the covid virus, but in reality people are under a state of “big prison”. It’s a way of performing control of the people. 

At least before the war and the pandemic, people used to do business with Iran, Georgia, and Russia, and they could earn their “daily bread” for themselves and their families. 

Now, those who have saved money are trying to leave the country by air, not in the name of work this time. The state is subjecting the citizens it counts to psychological harassment, to the state that many believe the country has become “unlivable”.

A new era of arrests

In the past three years, the country’s well-known socio-political activists, opposition religious figures, and anti-war activists have been subjected to arrests. After the 2020 Second Karabakh War, everyone opposing the regime was put on trial and the criticism against both in the country and from the international community has not been seen.

The arrests accelerated after protests in May, 2022.

As a protest against the pressure and arrests of sociopolitical activists in Azerbaijan on May 14, 2022, as a response to the planned march towards the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Baku, a demonstration was organized on Baku’s famous “Fountains Square.” After the demonstration, the activists were subject to more arrests in the next period. 

The first wave of arrests affected the religious community. At the end of May, the organization’s activists, including AghaAli Yahyayev, a member of the board of the Muslim Union Movement, was arrested, and a wave of arrests under the name of “spying for Iran” did not stop during the year after that period. 

Socio Political activists in Baku and the regions of the country began to be arrested consecutively. A year later, human rights defenders reported that it was difficult to determine the number of those arrested. 

Because the families of those arrested were threatened, and the process of making the issue public was blocked. At the same time, after the passage of the law on media, independent and pro-independence media outlets began to label religious people as “Iranian spies.” The numbers were terrifying, with some human rights defenders reporting that over a thousand or more religious individuals were arrested. 

Some claimed that a portion of those arrested received bribes out of fear and the prison terms were reduced. Those arrested came from Baku and the surrounding villages, Sumgait, Ganja, Lankaran, Masalli, Jalilabad, Shamkir, Barda, and several other cities. The families of some of them did not inform the press and were afraid. 

Moreover, the state did not want the real statistics to be revealed. That’s why very few family members of those arrested went public. In general, to this day, more than 50 percent of those arrested are members of the leadership and members of the Muslim Union Movement.

Death and torture

Unfortunately, on March 2, 2023, Sabuhi Salimov, a member of the Islamic Party, died after 53 days of a hunger strike and protest against his unlawful arrest and heavy charges (Article 274 of the Criminal Code – treason) against him. The mourning ceremony was strictly controlled by the state, and police surveillance was observed at the cemetery.

The trials of those arrested were very regrettable. Because the detained individuals were subjected to torture, those who did not accept material was taken to police stations with force and violence.

Another tragic situation was that the majority of Azerbaijani opposition and civil society did not defend religious individuals, instead expressed suspicion towards the arrested. 

Furthermore, some opposition leaders’ common statement was as follows: “We must remain silent because our protest against the arrest of religious people could harm the state’s interests.” Indeed, the opposition kept silent, thus allowing the Azerbaijani government’s unjust arrests to be ignored.

This solidarity was accompanied by the public. At that time, Azerbaijani civil society also joined this solidarity and signed its dirty signature on the exposure of hundreds of innocent people to defenselessness.

Ahmad Mammadli has been arrested multiple times for his activism. Photo private.

About the Author: Ahmad Mammadli is a political activist in Azerbaijan. He is the former president of the Social Democratic initiative Democracy 1918, which in September, just before the aggression of Nagorno-Karabakh, decided to upheld its operations due to persecution from the government.