Monday, June 20, 2011

In Support of Bakhtiyar Hajiyev

In support of imprisoned Azeri dissident Bakhtiyar Hajiyev

This post is dedicated to the memory of my beloved late teacher and friend Galina Starovoitova, an ethnographer and democratic politician who was brutally murdered by Putin in November, 1998, just four months after he became FSB chairman and more than a year before he become President of Russia. Galina urged me to speak out for freedom throughout the former Soviet bloc, not only in Russia.

Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, 29, is a brave political dissident in Azerbeijan who was recently sentenced to two years in prison because he has challenged the authoritarian regime inside his home country. He earned a masters degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 2009 and could probably have chosen to take a cushy job at an investment bank or an international NGO. But instead he made a very courageous and difficult decision: he chose to return to his homeland to fight for democracy against a regime which has no respect for the rule of law. He returned to a country in which Eynulla Fatullayev, an opposition journalist, was imprisoned for having investigated the unsolved murder of Elner Huseynov in 2005. Mr. Fatullayev has since been released in May after a 2010 decision by the European Court of Human Rights in his favor. l

He has a very impressive background, having earned a bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics from Baku State University in 2004. He addressed the UN General Assembly in 2005 as an Azeri youth representative. He was a founder and leader of the international student organization AISEC in Azerbeijan in 2005-2007. He was a candidate for parliament in the November, 2010, elections.  I urge everyone to check out his support web site here.

He returned to Azerbeijan probably knowing he would eventually be arrested and imprisoned. In his speech upon his sentencing, he said that he felt morally obligated to return to Azerbeijan to fight for change in light of the arrests of his colleagues in the Azeri youth movement Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizada in 2009. He said,” The main goal of the new generation is to build a just society in which rule of law and human rights are respected and citizens live freely and happily.” He is a young man who demonstrates considerable moral courage in his resistance to tyranny and a great willingness to sacrifice his own safety and freedom for the sake of the broader struggle for human dignity in Azerbeijian.

His classmate Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez at Harvard wrote a wonderful piece honoring Hajiyev. . Mr. Lansberg-Rodriguez returned to his native land of Venezuela after graduation to support a weak opposition. But faced with being kidnapped and beaten for ten hours, he was frightened by the regime and chose to leave Venezuela. I consider his decision to exit Venezuela totally understandable as I don’t think I could easily stand up to a regime like Chavez. His decision to leave Venezuela is a further demonstration of Mr. Hajiyev’s courage in choose to remain in Azerbeijan’s repressive conditions.

Mr. Hajiyev used Facebook to organize a protest against the Azeri regime on March 11, 2011, partly to coincide with the 1 month anniversary of the fall of the Mubarak regime in Egypt on February 11, 2011.   Mr. Hajiyev made clear that he was inspired by the success of the Egyptian revolution and wanted to use its lessons in order to help liberate his own people from tyranny. On March 4, one week before the scheduled protest, Mr. Hajiyev was arrested on bogus charges of evading military service. This regime was simply using this excuse in order to persecute Mr. Hajiyev for his political activities. Unfortunately, neither the U.S. government nor its European allies are calling for Mr. Hajiyev’s release outright. The failure of the West to stand by this democratic dissident is very unfortunate but also very predictable.

He was also treated very brutally once in prison. He was so severely beaten in the days immediately following his arrest that he lost consciousness on three separate occasions. He was also threatened with rape. After his arrest he went on hunger strike to protest this torture. The world needs to demand Mr. Hajiyev’s immediate release and to support his call for a peaceful movement for democratic regime change in Azerbeijan.

He made a very passionate and powerful address to the court on his sentencing. His entire speech is well worth reading and can be seen here. . He protested the illegality of the whole court process by issuing the statement to the media instead of speaking directly to the court. He offered a dissident’s definition of patriotism. He said,” We, the youth who think differently believe that patriotism is not only about protecting the Motherland’s soil and rocks, it is also about defending its citizen and her rights.” He defines patriotism not in terms of unconditional support for the authoritarian regime which is brutalizing his country but in terms of the right to question authority for the greater benefit of all citizens. He understands well that the regime is trying to intimidate the opposition by making an example out of him – and trying to silence a new generation of youth activists who are no longer willing to accept an endless cycle of political repression.

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