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“The price for activism is torture”

In an interview for Blankspot, the Azerbaijani democracy activist Ahmad Mammadli tells about the struggle against the dictatorship.

In recent weeks, Blankspot has published a series of articles by Azerbaijani democracy activist Ahmad Mammadli. He was the chairman of the social democratic movement Democracy 1918 until August, which was initiated after the Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020.

The movement was formed in response to the increasing repression by the Azerbaijani government against civil society. After three years of struggle for democratic rights, Democracy 1918 was finally disbanded when the government intensified its arrests of its members.

In an interview with Ahmad Mammadli, he tells about the situation of democracy activists in Azerbaijan.

First and foremost, what is the most important message you want to convey with your texts?

“The topics cover issues related to human rights and freedoms, free and democratic elections, women’s rights, LGBTQ+, political prisoners, and peace activists. Ordinary Azerbaijani citizens are usually not particularly concerned about these issues, but for those affected, the situation is critical. Moreover, more and more people are affected by the oppression. I believe it is my duty to highlight all these issues and convey to the world the reality here.”

You chose to dissolve Democracy 1918, why?

“After the end of the war in 2020, political organizations and civil society experienced stricter restrictions from the state. Especially after the introduction of new laws restricting media and political parties. We see that freedom of expression and political freedoms are shrinking all the time. In protest of these restrictions, the Democracy 1918 movement declared that we could no longer operate under these conditions. This, in itself, was a form of civil disobedience, a protest against the current regime.”

How free is civil society today?

“We need to go back to 2013 to answer the question. Then civil society underwent what we call the “great crackdown.” After the introduction of a new law on non-governmental organizations and scrutiny of their financing in 2013, funding from the West for civil society in the country stopped. During that period (2013-2016), prominent figures within civil society were imprisoned. Among them are Anar Mammadli, Khadija Ismayilova, Intigam Aliyev, Rasul Jafarov, Rauf Mirqadirov, Bashir Suleymanli, Parviz Hashimli, Hasan Huseynli, Arif Yunus and his wife Leyla Yunus, as well as politicians like the leader of the REAL party, Ilgar Mammadov, members of the Musavat party, Tofiq Yaqublu and Faraj Kerimli, and a member of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, Seymur Hazi”

“In addition to these names, there are many other civil society and political activists. All of this still feels serious today. Therefore, the current structures of civil society are not free and are in a very weakened situation. Today, we can talk about further crackdown, perhaps an attempt at a final one.”

How do you think Azerbaijan will develop in the coming years, in terms of democracy?

“It is very difficult, perhaps even impossible, to say that there will be democratic development in Azerbaijan in the coming years. This is because the dictatorship, which is strong and has strengthened its control over society, can easily imprison and exert pressure on a group of democratic activists. It is also about support for the regime increasing. In such conditions, political activity is virtually impossible. Today, activists can only express their activism to some extent. If someone wants to fight for change, they must be prepared to be arrested and subjected to torture.”

How can the international community support activists in Azerbaijan?

“It is unfortunate to see the cooperation between certain Western countries and the Aliyev regime. Through these collaborations, they send the message that natural resources are more important than democracy. In any case, Azerbaijanis must build their own democracy. Expecting a foreign power to change the political leadership is not a normal expectation.”

“I have expressed these views myself during meetings with EU member states’ missions in Baku, emphasizing that no state, not even the United States, has an obligation to establish a democratic system in front of the Azerbaijani people. The democratic organization in our country should be built by ourselves, civil society activists, and representatives of civil society, in cooperation with Azerbaijani society. If you want to support us from the outside world, show solidarity with our movement.”

Read the series of articles by Ahmad Mammadli here:

Part 1 – The persecution of the religious community

Part 2 – The imprisonment of the democratic movement

Part 3 – The persecution of the exiled