This week, Baku’s Court on Grave Crimes sentenced eight young men — seven members of the N!DA civic movement and one member of the Free Youth movement — to between six and eight years in prison. They were convicted on spurious charges — hooliganism, drug possession, and illegal possession of firearms, to name a few — but their true crime was promoting the idea of democracy and the values that come with it.
The N!DA movement gained momentum in March of 2013 when members used social media to organize a demonstration about the mysterious death of a conscript, Jeyhun Gubadov. Military documentation stated Gubadov’s official cause of death as heart failure, yet he was healthy and had no history of heart problems prior to joining the military. The young man’s family suspected the report was falsified and told their story publicly. In response to Gubadov’s death, a peaceful protest was organized by the members of the movement in Baku, addressing the issue of increased deaths of army conscripts due to hazing and bullying within the military in Azerbaijan. These and several other protests were violently dispersed. Whether it was hazing in the army, shopkeepers protesting the rise in rents, or angered residents of a town outside of Baku, there was a clear sign of growing discontent among the public.
On March 7, 2013, three days short of a protest planned by N!DA, group members Bakhtiyar Guliyev and Shahin Novuzlu were detained and charged with illegal possession of arms and drugs. There were also reports that another member, Mahammad Azizov, had disappeared. On that same day, the Ministry of National Security and head prosecutor office shared a statement that Molotov cocktails, marijuana, and other drugs were found during the search in the apartments of the detained activists. According to the statement there were also posters with “urgent need for democracy” written on them. The next day, the three men appeared on state television confessing their crimes. They were handed a three-month sentence shortly thereafter.
On March 10, the “End conscript deaths!” protest, organized chiefly through Facebook, attracted some 4,000 protesters and 15,000 supporters on Facebook. Although demonstrators marched peacefully, police intervened using force, turning the event into one of the most violent in a decade. In the weeks that followed, Rahsad Hasanov, Rashadat Akhundov, Uzeyir Mammadli, Zaur Gurbanli were all arrested and detained, mainly under accusations of illegal possession of firearms. On May 17, youth activist, Ilkin Rustamzade (a member of the “Active Youth” movement) was placed in two months pre-trial detention after shooting a “Harlem Shake” video and sharing it on YouTube. On September 12, all young men were handed a new charge- organizing mass riots accompanied with violence, breaking, arsons, destruction of property under Criminal Code’s article 220.1.
Court hearings began in April of 2014. Later that month, the prosecutor general asked for sentences ranging from six to eight years’ jail time.
On the day when the prosecutor asked for sentences, the eight men announced their decision to go on hunger strike, and for 20 days approaching their trial, the eight jailed N!DA members refused food. After a brief trial, all eight were convicted on false charges, and given the following prison sentences:
Shahin Novruzlu – 6 years
Mahammad Azizov – 7.5 years
Bakhtiyar Guliyev – 7 years
Rashadat Akhundov – 8 years
Rashad Hasanov – 7.5 years
Zaur Gurbanli – 8 years
Ilkin Rustamzade – 8 years
Uzeyir Mammadli – 7 years
Supporters gathered outside of the courtroom began chanting “azadet” (free them) a popular hashtag/slogan used to share updates on the “case of eight” and call on the president and other authorities to free the young men. Police violently dispersed the crowd, pushing them away from the courthouse. According to local reports, they detained around 30 people by shoving them on to buses and taking them to police stations.
In their final statement to the court, the young men said although their demands to be freed were not met, they have decided to stop the hunger strike. They explicitly addressed their status as a political target of the ruling government and even forgave the judges’ decision on these grounds:
“…we are aware of the fact that neither the state prosecutor, nor you, the judges, have any other options to pursue. Your responsibilities in the court are limited to acting in the role of notaries to legitimize this politically motivated order. Even if the law and consciousness demand you to act otherwise, you shall not dare to depart from this order. We should also mention that we are not the sole victims of the regime in this trial. Your appointment as the judge and the proscuter [sic] also makes you victims of this fabricated court case. Indeed, we behind bars and you at liberty are all hostages and victims in this big prison called Azerbaijan.”
“Despite our demands not met, and sacrificing our demand for freedom for our aims, we stop the hunger strike. But the struggle continues!”
Following the verdict, well-known journalist Khadija Ismayil wrote on her Facebook page, “Found guilty of being bright, intelligent, brave and honest.” Many share the sentiment. However while some are openly expressing this concern, others continue to live in the shadow of fear in Azerbaijan, also known as the Land of Fire.