Why Did Azerbaijani Authorities Arrest Talysh Activist?


Russian human rights activists and representatives of Azerbaijan’s Talysh and Lezgin minorities convened a press conference in Moscow last week to publicize the arrest by the Azerbaijani authorities of Talysh human rights activist and newspaper editor Gilal Mamedov and demand his release.

Mamedov, 52, was apprehended on the street in Baku on June 21 and charged with possession of drugs after a search of his person and his apartment purportedly yielded some 30 grams of heroin. His colleagues and fellow human rights activists are convinced he was framed; they characterize him as a man of «crystal honesty» and deeply pious, and they say he neither smokes nor drinks, let alone takes drugs.

Mamedov has been remanded in pretrial detention for three months and has reportedly been badly beaten in jail.

Mamedov is a mathematician who worked for Azerbaijan’s Academy of Sciences and a member of Azerbaijan’s Talysh minority. The Talysh are an Iranian people who live in the southeastern regions of Azerbaijan bordering on Iran. The official results of the 2009 Azerbaijani national census give the number of Talysh as 112,000, or less than 1 percent of the country’s total population, compared with 76,800 in 1999. But one of the Talysh participants in last week’s press conference in Moscow claimed that the true figure is 500,000, and that a further 600,000 Talysh live in Iran.

In the late 1980s, Mamedov took advantage of then-CPSU General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost (openness) to start publishing an unofficial journal devoted to the problems faced by Talysh in Azerbaijan. He was a co-founder of the unofficial Talysh People’s Party, subsequently renamed the Party of Equality of the Peoples of Azerbaijan, which was banned in 1993 following the proclamation by Mamedov’s co-ethnic, Azerbaijan Popular Front member Colonel Alikram Gumbatov, of an independent Talysh-Mughan Autonomous Republic.

That initiative was swiftly crushed. Mamedov, whose role in it is unclear, left Azerbaijan for Russia, where he lived for the next 12 years. Gumbatov was apprehended in December 1993 but escaped from jail nine months later. He was recaptured and sentenced to death in February 1996 for «crimes against the state»; that sentence was subsequently commuted to life imprisonment. Following Azerbaijan’s acceptance in early 2001 into full membership of the Council of Europe, that organization designated Gumbatov a political prisoner and demanded that he be retried; he was resentenced to life imprisonment in July 2003 but pardoned and stripped of his Azerbaijani citizenship 14 months later, and left Azerbaijan for the Netherlands.

Mamedov returned to Baku in 2005. In the spring of 2007, he formed a committee to defend the rights of Novruzali Mamedov, a prominent Talysh scholar and editor of the newspaper «Tolyshi sado» arrested on charges of spying for Iran.

Novruzali Mamedov was sentenced in June 2008 to 10 years’ imprisonment. Both Azerbaijani and international human rights groups publicly deplored that sentence. Azerbaijani human rights groups declared Mamedov a political prisoner, and representatives of the Baku OSCE office and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe visited him in prison.

Novruzali Mamedov died in jail in August 2009, having not received adequate medical treatment for a variety of health problems, including a cataract, a prostate tumor, and thyroid problems. His property was confiscated from his widow two years later.

Gilal Mamedov characterized Novruzali Mamedov as a staunch supporter of the Azerbaijani leadership and produced as evidence issues of «Tolyshi sado» published at the time of the 2003 Azerbaijani presidential elections affirming that «the Talysh support Ilham Aliyev and will stand behind him like the proud Talysh mountains.»

At the same time, Gilal Mamedov was quoted by the Azerbaijani website day.az in 2007 as accusing the Azerbaijani leadership of Turkic nationalism and of seeking to suppresss non-Turkic minorities, including the Talysh. He said the Azerbajani leadership seeks to minimize contacts between the Talysh communities in Azerbaijan and Iran and to turn Azerbaijan into a mono-ethnic state. But while Gilal Mamedov continued to defend the right of the Talysh to preserve their national identity, he has never espoused the cause of a separate Talysh state.

Gilal Mamedov took over as editor of «Tolyshi sado,» but that newspaper was published only infrequently: the most recent issue appeared over one year ago.

The question thus arises: Why did the Azerbaijani authorities decide to arrest Mamedov now?

Russian human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina sees no logic in doing so. She suggested that the Azerbaijani leadership is simply afraid of the opposition and of national minorities whose loyalties they cannot count on and who might one day begin protesting discrimination against them.

Leyla Yunus, director of the Baku-based Institute for Peace and Democracy, similarly told the Kavkaz-Uzel website that Mamedov’s arrest did not come as a surprise to her, given that the current regime «persecutes all citizens who stand up in defense of their constitutional rights such as freedom of speech and expression, [and] who demand free democratic elections and protection of the rights of national minorities.»

According to Azerbaijani human rights activist Rasul Djafarov, Mamedov himself is inclined to attribute his arrest to a video clip made at a Talysh wedding at which he sings (in Russian) a traditional Talysh melody. The text poses the questions, in the familiar second person singular rather than the formal second person plural, «Who the hell are you? Why don’t you get lost?» That clip was posted on YouTube and went viral across Russia. Participants at the mass demonstrations in Moscow in early June reportedly chanted the refrain with glee, addressing to Russian President Vladimir Putin («Putin, who the hell are you?»)

It is therefore possible that the Russian authorities, who are intensively promoting closer ties and cooperation between the North Caucasus and Azerbaijan, may have asked Baku to silence Mamedov, and that the Azerbaijani authorities in turn welcomed the pretext to take action against a man they regarded as a potential threat.

Why Did Azerbaijani Authorities Arrest Talysh Activist?.

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