Azeri Enclave Puts Lid on Dissenting Voices

Locals in isolated Nakichevan say authorities there have ways of ensuring complaints don’t reach Baku.

Azeri Enclave Puts Lid on Dissenting Voices

Locals in isolated Nakichevan say authorities there have ways of ensuring complaints don’t reach Baku.

A problem that is not talked about does not exist.”

Such is the motto of the government of the Autonomous Republic of Nakhichevan according to one aggrieved resident of the isolated Azeri enclave, bordering Turkey, Iran and Armenia.

“People here are denied any possibility to apply to the central authorities or to European structures, to [protest] their violated rights,” he added.

The problem facing people like him is that enclave is effectively cut off from the rest of Azerbaijan owing to the latter’s bitter dispute with Armenia.

Local residents can only get to Baku by plane or take a bus ride via Iran, and feel isolated and at the mercy of the local authorities.

“It’s very difficult for anyone to leave Nakhichevan,” the man said. But it’s worse, he went on, for opponents of the local government, “They’re harassed.. but have no chance to leave the republic and take their complaints to the government.”

Locals who speak openly about problems risk being labeled traitors, while journalists who come to investigate problems are accused of spying for arch-foe Armenia.

This IWPR contributor knows this from firsthand experience.

In February, he was in the enclave collecting information for a report when agents of the local national security ministry detained him on suspicion of espionage. He was only released several hours later.

Novruz Aliev, 58, from the village of Gakhab, in Nakhichevan’s Babek district, was less lucky.

Last December, he was sentenced to 18 months in jail for the crime of making false accusations against the enclave’s interior minister, Ahmed Ahmedov.

The jailed man’s relatives say Novruz Aliev made the error of writing a letter to President Ilham Aliev of Azerbaijan in which he complained that the social security minister of Nakhichevan, Azer Alekberov, had stripped him of the invalidity pension he had been receiving as a diabetic.

Novruz Aliev had received the pension for ten years before it was withdrawn - for no known reason - two years ago.

Days before the October 15, 2008 presidential election, Novruz Aliev was summoned Ahmedov’s office, and ordered to retract his complaint.

When he refused, he was arrested and detained for five days. On his release, he sent another complaint to the Azeri president – this time against Ahmedov.

Novruz Aliev’s relatives say they did not even know that Ahmedov had filed a lawsuit against him. But events moved swiftly.

On December 3, he was summoned to appear in court, a member of the family told IWPR.

“Novruz went, and when he did not come back in the evening, we were worried. Only the next morning did we find out that he’d been convicted,” said the relative.

Another two months passed after sentencing before the family was told where he was being kept. Currently, Novruz Aliev is serving his time in the enclave’s Boyukduz prison.

Huseyn Mamedov, who chairs the Nakhichevan court, says the authorities here have nothing to apologise for.

“[Novruz] Aliev sent a complaint against the interior minister to a number of official structures in which he unfairly accused the minister under 16 articles of the criminal code,” he said.

“Nine of these articles dealt with grave crimes, another one – with an especially grave crime.

“[Novruz] Aliev was found guilty of having lodged false charges against a high-ranking official and sentenced to a year-and-a half in jail.”

Mamedov said Novruz Aliev had been given the option of appealing against the verdict and chose not to do so.

The reference to “grave crimes” concerns the fact that he had reportedly told the Azeri president that Ahmedov had pointed a gun at his head.

The minister had allegedly threatened to shoot Novruz Aliev if he refused to withdraw his complaint against the social security minister.

The IWPR correspondent has not been able to obtain a copy of the written complaint, nor did he extract a comment from Ahmedov.

As for members of Novruz Aliev’s family, they are concerned about discussing the issue with outsiders.

However, IWPR did speak to his wife, Yasemen, after walking to the family home, where locals helped track her down.

While serving tea, she said she was worried for her husband, a man no longer young and with health problems. She said he had been convicted unfairly.

Significantly, officialdom soon reared its head to termimate this discussion.

The conversation was interrupted by a telephone that Yasemen hurried away to answer.

She could then be heard saying to someone, “No, I didn’t complain, they’ve come on their own. I’ll send them away right now...”

Having hung up, the woman came back to her guests, her hospitality and friendliness gone without trace.

Presumably acting on orders, her husband had called her – for the first time since his arrest – to tell her that she should make her visitors leave.

Journalists had earlier applied to Nakhichavan’s justice ministry for permission to see the imprisoned man.

After visiting Yasemen, this IWPR reporter, together with several colleagues, went to the Boyukduz prison, where official assured them that Novruz Aliev had refused to see them and had no complaints to make.

With complaints being routinely prevented from reaching Baku – to the extent that local post office employees simply refuse to forward letters addressed to central government – some locals have found ways to get round what they see as an information blockade.

They have gone to Turkey and mailed their protest letters to Baku from there.

This is exactly what Ismail Hasanov, a 72-year-old sight-impaired resident of the village of Heydarabad, in the Sadarak District, did.

He says he lodged his complaints against the district authorities in Sadarak, the district police, and interior ministry of Nakhichevan, in connection with an incident last December.

On the evening of December 24, 2008, his son, Elvin Hasanov, and several other lads from Heydarabad village, Afig Veliev, Ilkin Yagubov, Elmaddin Ahmedov, Galib Ahmedli, Kerem Eldaroglu and Onal Vetenoglu, were arrested and taken to the district police station.

Ismail Hasanov says that when he, and the other parents whose sons had been taken into custody, came to the police station, asking why children were being punished, the deputy chief of the police, Dagbei Alekberov, said the boys had broken lamp bulbs on a Christmas tree.

The boys were released the next day after being placed on a temporary 6 pm curfew.

But the parents say their children had been abused physically and psychologically in custody and blamed the chief of the police station, Fariz Mamedov, his deputy, Dagbei Alekberov, and another officer, Anar Aliev.

The parents then went over the border to Turkey to write to President Aliev, asking him to bring to book the policemen who they said were creating a state of lawlessness in the village, named after the President’s father, Heydar Aliev.

But Ismail Hasanov says writing to the president didn’t seem to have them much good.

The other parents had now withdrawn their complaints, under pressure from the police, he said.

He also said he had already been punished. After being summoned by the local authorities, he was sent to a psychiatric hospital for ten days.

Ashraf Hasymov, of the Sadarak district’s administration, puts the story very differently, however.

He said Ismail Hasanov was not summoned to the local authority building but came on his own accord, broke into the office of the administration chief and struck him on the head with a cane.

“He did not come there to discuss the arrest of the lads, either, but to demand a new flat,” he said.

Ismail Hasanov disagrees, and says he has not given up on his mission to force Baku to intervene in the affairs of the isolated enclave.

He has since been back to Turkey, this time to send new complaints to President Aliev and to the Council of Europe.

Whether the government of Azerbaijan will take much notice of his and other such complaints is another matter.

Eldar Ibragimov, deputy in the the national parliament for the enclave, is scornful of media reports of the alleged harrassment of people like Ismail Hasanov.

“I dont believe the newspapers have been writing,” he told IWPR. “Healthy people are not sent to psychiatric institutions because they've complained to come official body. These are stories invented by the opposition newspapers.”

Ibragimov said it was not surprising that what he called “a heightened security regime” was in place in Nakichevan.

“It has to do with the fact that it's a border region, adjoining, among others, Armenia. That's why the law-enforcement bodies have to be on high alert,” he said.

Idrak Abbasov is a correspondent of the newspaper Ayna.

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