A politician in Azerbaijan has offered a cash reward for anyone who slices off the ear of a controversial writer – the latest twist in an alleged hate campaign waged by the country’s authoritarian government in an apparent attempt to distract attention from internal issues.
The author, Akram Aylisli, is in trouble for his novel Stone Dreams, in which he portrayed scenes of violence carried out by Azerbaijanis against their Armenian foes during the riots that accompanied the break-up of the Soviet Union. What appears to be a coordinated campaign has been unleashed against him, with television programmes and official pronouncements railing against the writer.
He was expelled from the Union of Writers and had his presidential pension rescinded. His wife and son have also lost their jobs, while protesters have organised book-burnings of his works, held pickets outside his house, and burned effigies of him.
Events took an even more alarming turn when Hafiz Haciyev, the head of a pro-government political party, said his party would pay 10,000 manat (£8,000) for the ear of the author.
“The book was meant to be about conciliation between Azeris and Armenians,” Mr Aylisli told The Independent from Baku. “I realised when I wrote it that it could be controversial, but I didn’t for a minute think that there would be this giant campaign, on a state level.”
Azerbaijan is a bitter foe of neighbouring Armenia, and the two countries fought a war in the early 1990s over Nagorno-Karabakh, which is recognised as part of Azerbaijan but is currently run by a pro-Armenian government. There is still a heavily armed front line of muddy trenches between the two countries, and periodic militaristic rhetoric from both sides.
“If a person has no national spirit, he cannot have a sense of humanity,” said Ali Hasanov, an aide to Azerbaijan’s President, Ilham Aliyev, commenting on Mr Aylisli’s novel. “The Azerbaijani people must express public hatred towards these people.”
“The Azerbaijani authorities have an obligation to protect Akram Aylisli,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead, they have led the effort to intimidate him, putting him at risk with a campaign of vicious smears and hostile rhetoric.”
The campaign comes after a period of unusual civil unrest in the country, as Mr Aliyev prepares to stand for re-election later in the year. Last month, thousands of people attended an unsanctioned rally in Baku over conditions in the military, and later there were violent protests in a provincial town after a minister’s son crashed his luxury car into a local’s more modest vehicle. Although the President still retains the support of the majority of Azeris, analysts say discontent over Mr Aliyev’s authoritarian methods and the rampant corruption of the ruling elite is eroding the regime’s popularity.
“Something is definitely changing in Azerbaijan,” said Emin Milli, a blogger and activist who was released from a 15-day jail sentence for organising unsanctioned rallies last month. “For the first time, thousands of people are coming out to protest. This is the government’s old game to rally support – play the nationalist card.”