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“Freedom for Tofiq Yaqublu”. The price of political opposition

Tofiq Yaqublu, the Azerbaijani opposition leader and prisoner of conscience, started a hunger strike demanding the reversal of his recent prison sentence. This is a desperate cry for justice in a country where everything depends on the whim of the president.

September 16, 2020 - Anna Zamejc - Stories and ideas

Photo courtesy of Aziz Karimov.

Critics, especially with a political background, have never had an easy life in Azerbaijan. With no independent courts, few political freedoms and flawed elections, human rights groups have consistently ranked the country among the most repressive states in the post-Soviet region. Yet, amid the coronavirus clampdown, Azerbaijan has opened another bleak chapter in its modern history.

President Ilham Aliyev, in power since he succeeded his father Heydar Aliyev, in 2003, has skilfully used pandemic restrictions to renew a government-led crackdown on dissenting voices. Since April, dozens of opposition members, activists and journalists have been subjected to criminal charges or administrative detention.

The recent protests have focused on the case of Tofiq Yaqublu – a 59-year-old senior politician from a major opposition coalition who was detained in March. Three days earlier, Aliyev, in a nationally televised address, called the traditional opposition forces “enemies who are among us”, “traitors”, and a “fifth column” that seeks to “destroy Azerbaijan” and needs to be “isolated”.

According to Yaqublu, on March 22nd, he was sitting in his parked car when another vehicle hit him from the side. The driver and a passenger got out and attempted to attack him. Suspecting a set-up, Yaqublu called the police and remained in the front seat, which, however, did not save him. The officers ignored his version of events and detained him.  Nearly half a year later, a court convicted Yaqublu of bogus hooliganism charges and sentenced him to more than four years in prison.

On September 2nd, a day before the verdict, in protest of the sham trial, the politician declared a hunger strike and vowed to continue until the conviction was withdrawn. Those who know him are worried he will not back down even if he is to pay the highest price.

Throughout his life, Yaqublu has been a man of principle and a fighter. When a brutal war broke up between Azerbaijan and Armenia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Yaqublu volunteered to fight to defend his homeland and try to reclaim lost lands. Yet even in wartime, he did not lose his strong sense of justice. In 1988, when violent clashes were driving Armenian residents out of Sumgayit, a city 30 kilometres from Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, Yaqublu saved several lives by personally evacuating an Armenian family to the airport.

His uncompromising stance and adherence to democratic values could not keep him personally safe in Azerbaijan, a state that has emerged from the war increasingly authoritarian due to the loss of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding provinces to Armenia as well as the rise of the Aliyev clan in 1994.

Twenty-five years on, a fierce critic of the ruling elite, Yaqublu has gotten to know the country’s prisons inside out. Since 1998, his first conditional arrest, he was thrown behind bars nearly 40 times, mainly as part of administrative detentions for up to a month. In 2013 he was sentenced to six years in jail for alleged attempts to organise mass riots. He regained his freedom two and a half years later through a presidential pardon.

Shortly after he was released in 2016, we met for coffee in Prague. He tried to add a grain of humour to his time in prison, telling me stories about his time behind bars, as if those three years and two months stolen from him were just a minor episode, barely worth a mention. It was not true: rife with ill-treatment, corruption and poor sanitary conditions, Azerbaijani prisons are not to be taken lightly.  However, life went on, and Tofiq Yaqublu was not one of those who lived in the past.

There was only one moment when his eyes darkened and sadness engulfed him as he recalled the most painful day of his incarceration. Or probably of his entire life.  On April 23rd 2015 he was watching a pro-government TV channel when he saw news about a young, beautiful Azerbaijani girl who had lost her life in Tomsk, Russia, while giving birth. She had suffered from hepatitis and the disease complicated the labour to the extent that doctors could not save her. It was his own daughter, Nargiz.

Those were not easy times for the Yaqublu family. Another daughter, Nigar, a human rights activist and also a member of the opposition Musavat party, had been arrested a few months before her father, following a car accident. She was sentenced to two and a half years in prison and spent a few months behind bars before her term was softened. Her husband, journalist Seymur Hazi, whom she married while he remained behind bars, spent five years in jail on hooliganism charges.

Photo courtesy of Aziz Karimov

According to Alya Yaqublu, Tofiq’s cousin, the politician has been threatened and blackmailed, warned that bad things could happen to his children if he does not withdraw from opposition activities. Nevertheless, he has always refused to back down.

In October 2019, following an opposition rally, Yaqublu was thrown back in prison, getting beaten and tortured for over a month according to human rights groups. Still, he has not changed course.

“He’s immune to fear. There are people who are impossible to break, impossible to scare. Tofiq is one of them,” Alya Yaqublu says. “He would join every action, every protest, every call for justice. I asked him once why he was so determined. He’d answer: ‘Where there is a struggle, I am there.’”

With his severe loss of weight and failing health on the 10th day of his hunger strike, Tofiq Yaqublu was transferred on September 12th to an intensive care unit at a private hospital, but his situation remains serious. Visited by his daughter Nıgar, he vowed he would not give up his hunger strike and is ready to sacrifice his life.

Meanwhile, an online campaign for Yaqublu’s freedom has been reaching new heights, with thousands of people collecting signatures for his release and posting their images online with a hashtag ##TofiqYaqubluyaAzadlıq (“Freedom for Tofiq Yaqublu”). The authorities should use the increasing public action as a moment of reckoning. The court is expected to hear his appeal this or next week and it will be the right time to reconsider the allegations.

Anna Zamejc is a freelance journalist and an expert on the South Caucasus.

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