Azerbaijan’s youth activists are facing brutal repression from the state. But despite the risks, young people are still willing to get involved.
Azerbaijan’s civil society scene has never been at such a low ebb. From youth movements to non-governmental organisations to independent media outlets — in the past three years, many voices have been muzzled, if not completely silenced in what many international observers describe as unprecedented crackdown.
The traditional targets of the Aliyev regime (opposition political parties and their members) have expanded to include independent spectators, bloggers, journalists, political activists, leaders of NGO movements and members of active youth movements. Indeed, since 2009, the pursuit of youth movements has opened a new chapter in forms and targets of government crackdown.
This repression formed the backdrop for the emergence of N!DA in early 2011, when a group of seven young men came together to form a civic movement. They called themselves N!DA, which means “exclamation mark” in Azeri. Modeled after similar movements in Georgia, Serbia and Belarus, N!DA called for political change largely through education-focused initiatives. Today, the organisation has around 300 active members, and has played a major role in exposing deaths in Azerbaijan’s compulsory military service.
The continuous persecution of N!DA is a sign that Baku is intimidated by Azerbaijan’s active and politically engaged youth, and it intends simply to muzzle their voices and intimidate other youth activists from joining movements such as N!DA.
Jail time for exposing hazing in the army
N!DA wasn’t the first youth movement to try and fill the void of civic engagement in Azerbaijan, but it was certainly the first group to encounter the level of persecution that it did.
Just two years after N!DA established itself in 2011, all of its leading members had ended up in prison on spurious charges and lengthy sentences — prominent critics, rights defenders and political activists were gagged as a result of an authoritarian grip on power of the leadership in Azerbaijan. They were among some 30 high profile cases of Azerbaijani men and women representing the country’s vibrant civil society who wound up in jail on trumped up charges. Certainly, back when the group first came together, neither N!DA, nor its followers knew what was in store for them.
State repression might grow in Azerbaijan, but so will the popularity of alternative formations to outdated political institutions
The idea behind forming N!DA was simple. “Amid the political and social standstill, it came as a natural outcome. N!DA wanted to tackle existing challenges in a society marred by violated elections and lack of democratic reforms,” Nijat Mammadbayli, a former N!DA member, told me.
In many ways, the group succeeded at reaching these goals — whether it was through N!DA’s leadership school, or “left and right” debates between political activists and seminars/trainings by local youth experts. This was especially important in an environment where there are few opportunities for self learning, developing skills and sharing knowledge, groups such as N!DA (and those before it) filled a gap, providing safe space for students to come together, learn from each other and engage in meaningful conversations and debates.
Between contested parliamentary elections and Eurovision
In 2011, Azerbaijan had just left behind another contested election. The 2010 parliamentary election had brought president Ilham Aliyev’s ruling party a majority in parliament. And a year before that, the president scrapped presidential term limits via a national referendum, which, though internationally contested, gave Aliyev the power to be re-elected — this he did successfully in the presidential elections in 2013.
The political standstill in Azerbaijan was thus very much real. Disillusionment with the west was creeping in, youth engagement was sporadic and Azerbaijan’s civil society was yet to face a number of draconian amendments to legislation governing grants, registration of legal entities and the code of administrative offences that were just few years away.
“Our goal was to bring together people who had no political ambitions, but wanted political change”
It was at this peculiar time that N!DA came to exist. According to the movement’s website, N!DA aims to defend “constitutional and human rights of the society, and preserve the democratic and republican values.” The movement prides itself in having no political affiliation.
“The idea to have a movement free from any political aspirations and yet interested to bring about political change and democratisation was actually born sometime between 2009 and 2010,” Turgut Gambar, one of the founders of N!DA, told me in an interview.
“Back then, in contrast to now, youth engagement was very weak and there were not many youth activists to begin with. And once Adnan Hajizada and Emin Milli were arrested [the famous donkey bloggers whose arrest in 2009 triggered concern and criticism among international audience], all available resources were directed towards their release. By the end of 2010, the idea was back on the table. Not long after that, N!DA was created,” Gambar recalls.
Throughout its existence, N!DA has called for free and fair elections, promotion of democratic values, protection of rights and freedoms and youth participation. Many of N!DA members are young students and mid-career professionals. Their affiliations are also diverse, ranging from journalists, doctors, lawyers, accountants to entrepreneurs and businessmen coming from various towns in Azerbaijan, but mostly from Baku. Structurally, N!DA consists of a seven-member board, who are elected every year.
“Our goal was to bring together people who had no political ambitions, but wanted political change. We saw this format work in other countries too, so we tried to implement it in Azerbaijan,” says Turgut Gambar.
This was an important feature for the movement, given how divided political sentiments are in Azerbaijan. People are often split between the opposition itself, independents and fake opposition groups, which often side with the government and rarely criticise its policies. These divisions are compounded by general mistrust among political groups, each suspicious of the other due to power hunger.
But this openness also meant that N!DA could work with everyone, from NGOs to political parties and individuals. The movement’s apolitical nature also helped its members to continue implementing their projects despite political pressures ordinarily making it extremely difficult for civil society groups to carry out any kind of work.
The start of repression
N!DA engaged in and organised street rallies and flash mobs. Members also promoted the notion of nonviolent protests, and translated books including Gene Sharp’s 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action.
“We were different from other existing youth initiatives at the time. Our target groups differed extensively. We worked with activists and were interested in tackling social and political issues,” says Mammadbayli, who joined the movement a year after it was founded to coordinate the members who were based across Europe including Holland, Germany, Czech Republic, Belgium and Turkey.
What made N!DA stand out in particular were the protests organised in January and March 2013. These demonstrations called for an end to deaths of military conscripts from hazing and bullying.
The first rally on 12 January, 2013 attracted thousands of protesters, including families who lost their sons in suspicious circumstances. The protest was originally sparked following the news of death of 18-year-old conscript Jeyhun Gubadov whose body was returned to his parents’ just months after his drafting. A medical report explaining the cause of death as heart attack also arrived with Gubadov’s body. The conscript’s family refused to believe it. They decided to examine the body, only to realise their son’s corpse was covered with signs of physical violence. The images of Gubadov’s bruised body went viral.
Gubadov’s mother was devastated calling to find the perpetrators of the crime and punish them. During the rally, Gubadov’s mother was reported as saying: “I am here to tell the whole world what has happened. I will not let my son’s killers live without punishment. I will not be able to live [without justice]. How can I allow my second son be sent into the service of my homeland?”
As IWPR wrote shortly after the rally, the protest attracted an estimated number of 2,000 to 3,000 people. Observers said the numbers were much higher. “We didn’t expect such a large crowd,” recalls Mammadbayli. “It felt like people were there to fulfill their citizen duty. There were people from all sorts of professional backgrounds.”
The continuous persecution of N!DA is a sign that Baku is intimidated by Azerbaijan’s active and politically engaged youth
N!DA’s second rally in March 2013 was met with water cannons and stun grenades. Just three days before 10 March, the date of the rally, police detained and later arrested three members of N!DA movement. Mammad Azizov, Shahin Novruzlu and Bakhtiyar Guliyev were charged with drug possession following the search of their homes where police allegedly also found petrol bombs. On 9 March, the three men appeared on state television to confess they were involved in a plot to overthrow the ruling government. Later, all three said they were tortured into their confessions.
Four days after the rally, another N!DA member, Rashad Hasanov, was arrested on similar charges.
Mammadbayli describes these arrests as “the start of repression” not only against N!DA, but against Azerbaijani civil society as a whole. Shortly after Hasanov’s arrest, two more N!DA board members were arrested, including Rashadat Akhundov and Uzeyir Mammadov. Zaur Gurbanli, who at the time of the arrest was not a board member, increased the number of arrested N!DA members to seven people.
Under the crackdown
These arrests did not deter new members from joining the movement. Speaking to me, Ulviyya Ali, another N!DA member, said though there were many who did leave, new recruits and members filled the void. Ulviyya herself joined N!DA in 2012. “I followed them closely through their Facebook page. At the time I didn’t know of any other political movement that was made of youth only. I followed them closely for a year. I was still in high school and had a lot of schoolwork. But once I graduated I joined N!DA.”
Ulviyya was attracted to the movement most of all due to its detachment from political parties, and that it didn’t have a single person in charge of the structure. “I think that creates authoritarianism in movements,” Ulviyya told me. “It was unlike any other opposition. It was new, exciting, made of many young people. And since I too was young, it attracted and excited me.”
“It is difficult to say what are the factors behind youth joining the movement despite the risks. What I see is that, despite all the risks, there are still people interested in joining political forces and get organised,” says Gambar, who confirms the number of active members at 300. Most members are aged 18 to 30.
The risks however are high — and painful. The shortest sentence handed out to N!DA members in 2013-2014 was six years, while the longest was eight years. They were all accused of plotting to overthrow the regime in Baku through financing received from abroad.
Speaking shortly after release in March this year, Rashad Hasanov, a former board member of N!DA, told me he doesn’t regret the arrest, nor the things he did. “I never wanted to be arrested. It was never a motivation, nor was it some kind of adrenalin. Arrest meant long-term separation from people you loved, your work, things you did. It was simply a rational decision to continue doing our work,” says Hasanov, who served three years out of a seven-and-half year sentence.
“I never wanted to be arrested. It was never a motivation, nor was it some kind of adrenalin”
The long prison sentence was the most unexpected part. Hasanov says he thought he would be held for a year, if not 18 months, but certainly not three years. Now that he is free, Hasanov says he is happy he is free, despite everything. Answering the question of whether he will continue his active role in the movement, Hasanov says for now he is going to focus on his future, including starting a family and making progress with his education.
At the time of writing, all seven members have been released, while Ilkin Rustamzade, who was arrested together with the activists and later joined N!DA in jail, remains behind bars serving the third year of an eight year sentence.
New prisoners emerge
While former political prisoners like Hasanov now look forward to life after prison, new prisoners continue to emerge.
Two weeks ago, Bayram Mammadov, a member of N!DA, went missing. Mammadov was later reported detained the following day (11 May) on suspicion of painting graffiti on a statue of former president Heidar Aliyev. The graffiti read "Happy Slave Day" in Azeri — a play on the phrase "Happy Flower Day", Azerbaijan's national holiday that coincides with Heidar Aliyev’s birthday. Mammadov was detained with Giyas Ibrahimov, a member of leftist youth group SolFront.
When neither Mammadov nor Ibrahimov confessed to the alleged crime during questioning, both men were sentenced to four months pretrial detention on drug possession charges. Their confessions came at a high price. Mammadov and Ibrahimov wrote in their statements that both were tortured, beaten and humiliated by the police during detention period.
In his testimony (available on Meydan.TV), Mammadov wrote that, after being forced into a car by three men he had never seen before, he was brought to Sabuncu Police Department and Temporary Detention Center where he was beaten by seven or eight men who were not wearing police uniforms. As they beat Mammadov, the men kept asking him why he took pictures of the graffiti and who his associates were. But Mammadov was unable to respond: he lost consciousness soon after.
“They beat me harder and demanded that I accept the charges. They swore at me and insulted me. They took my pants off and threatened to use a bat on me ‘immorally’ - that is, to rape me. I had no choice but to accept the charges, confess and sign the testimony that was handed to me.”
Such inhumane treatment of activists in a country that is about to host Grand Prix Formula 1 Race should raise alarm for visitors planning to attend the event. Threat of rape with a police baton is not uncommon and international guests are no exception to this practice. What is also disturbing is further response of officials in Azerbaijan. Visiting the two activists in detention, Elmira Suleymanova, Azerbaijan’s human rights commissioner, concluded there were no traces of torture or mistreatment and that activists were lying about their experience whilst at the police custody.
Suleymanova’s indifference, as well as the general indifference of domestic institutions, leaves little hope for the future of Azerbaijan’s civil society. So long as repression continues and strict laws stay in place, there will be little that organisations like N!DA are capable of doing. That said, N!DA and other movements likely to emerge over the coming years are a good place to start when it comes to grassroots work in Azerbaijan, and especially with youth communities.
State repression might grow in Azerbaijan, but so will the popularity of alternative formations to outdated political institutions. The case of Bayramov and Ibrahimov attest to the fact that, despite state pressure, there are still dedicated young men and women in Azerbaijan who push for political change through alternative means.