No free speech for ethnic minority

My husband was imprisoned in February 2007. Two weeks later, they stormed into our house at midnight to scare us and told us that he had betrayed his nation.

This is how Maryam Mammadova remembers what happened to her late husband, Professor Novruzali Mammadov.

Novruzali Mammadov was arrested by the now defunct National Security Ministry on 2 February 2007. He died in suspicious circumstances on 17 August 2009 in a Baku prison. At the time of his arrest, he was the head of the scientific-educational sector of the Romance and Germanic Linguistics Institute of the National Academy of Sciences of Azerbaijan, the editor-in-chief of the “Tolyshi Sado” newspaper, and the deputy chairman of the Talysh Cultural Center. Many, including his wife, believe that he was imprisoned and killed for promoting Talysh culture and especially because of his activities connected with “Tolyshi Sado.”

Novruzali Mammadov
Novruzali Mammadov

The Talysh are an ethnic minority who live in southern Azerbaijan and northern Iran. Their language is closely related to Farsi. In 1993, Colonel Alikram Hummatov led an armed movement for an independent Talysh-Mughan Republic. Experts say that since then, the Azerbaijani government has been afraid of Talysh separatism and treats the ethnic Talysh population with suspicion.

Maryam Mammadova states that after Novruzali’s imprisonment, their two sons were beaten up by unknown individuals on a number of occasions. ”My son, Emil, was taken from Yasamal [a district of Baku] to somewhere far away and was beaten almost to death, then he was left in front of our flat,” Mammadova told Meydan TV. “My son had footprints on his body. The journalist was terrified while taking photos of him. After the photos were taken, I went to the police station and requested an expert, but to no avail. They treated my other son Kamran the same way. They kidnapped him and took him away to the suburb on 8 September 2007. They beat him so ferociously that his blood flowed from his ears. He died that very evening.”

Emil, the youngest son, survived the beating, but he later died in suspicious circumstances. While returning from his father’s mourning ceremony, Maryam and Emil were involved in a car accident, as a result of which Emil lost his life. The lorry driver who caused the accident was not subject to criminal liability. After that, Maryam Mammadova was forced to emigrate to the Netherlands.

In 2012, the new editor-in-chief of “Tolyshi Sado,” Hilal Mammadov, was also arrested. The newspaper felt compelled to cease its activities as a result of the increasing pressure. Hilal Mammadov remarked that his arrest was linked not only to his work with the newspaper. He claims that the authorities have no interest in the cultural and social development of ethnic minorities.

Hilal Mammadov
Hilal Mammadov

"It is not in the interests of the government for ethnic minorities to prosper,” Hilal Mammadov said. “The Talysh people ought to take matters into their own hands…. There are various websites operating in the Talysh language that should not stop their activities. They should not lose enthusiasm and keep going.”

According to the journalist Rafig Jalilov, the Talysh people were intimidated by the arrests of Novruzali Mammadov and Hilal Mammadov. He says that nobody dared to have anything to do with the Talysh-language newspaper.

Since 2011 has been editing another Talysh newspaper with a similar name - “Tolyshon Sado.” Jalilov has faced repression on a number of occasions. He has been banned from traveling abroad. In addition, he was seized by the police in Lankaran on 12 June and the newspapers that he had in his car were confiscated. The police told Jalilov that the issue of the newspaper in question (#107) contained an image of a hourglass, which they linked to the symbol of an opposition group based in Europe, the "Wake Up Movement" (Oyan Hərəkatı).

There are other Talysh-language newspapers which have not experienced the same kind of pressure, but they largely avoid political issues. "Dodo," "Ambur," and "Alam," for example, operate unimpeded. They were founded separately between 2016-2018 and have circulations between 400-1,000 each.

The editor-in-chief of "Alam,” Vugar Hamati, says that his newspaper has never experienced any form of state repression. "On the contrary, we have positive relationships with the Ministry of Justice and other governmental institutions to whom we presented our newspaper. The Ministry of Justice even congratulated us when we notified them that we will be publishing a newspaper in the Talysh language. Our newspaper was then approved. I don’t think that anyone has the right to put pressure on us. We’re simply keeping our native language alive."

The editor-in-chief of "Dodo" has also stated that she has not experienced pressure from the state. She admits that she was once arrested for printing a Talysh language dictionary, but she says that this is due to the political activity of the dictionary’s author.

Legal expert Atakhan Abilov says that the Azerbaijani government has not fulfilled any of its responsibilities toward the country’s ethnic minorities. Instead of providing support to the minority press, the government hinders its development.

Atakhan Abilov
Atakhan Abilov

"Azerbaijan signed [the European Framework Agreement on the Protection of Ethnic Minorities] before becoming a member of the Council of Europe. Nonetheless, Azerbaijan has failed to implement any of the requirements of this agreement,” says Abilov. “This document includes the rights of minorities such as minorities' right to education in one's native language, media rights, and the right to freedom of assembly. According to this document, if there is a people who live in two separate states, both states should cooperate to ensure their rights. The Talysh people fit this description since they are citizens of both Azerbaijan and Iran…. None of the articles of this convention have been implemented for the Talysh nation."

Journalist Azar Kazimzadeh says that there is no Talysh media outlet that publishes any appealing content, and blames the situation on government pressure. "Any media outlet that touches upon issues faced by the Talysh population cannot survive in this country. Anybody who tries to do so can expect the consequences suffered by Novruzali Mammadov and Hilal Mammadov. The fact that the Azerbaijani state has blocked two Talysh-language websites (talysh.org, talish.org) which did not feature political articles just goes to show how the government perceives the minority press. In any case, nobody involved should lose their enthusiasm. We must continue the struggle to solve this problem as we have every other time."