Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified E. Wayne Merry as a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Merry is a senior fellow for Europe and Eurasia at the American Foreign Policy Council. This version has been corrected.
MOSCOW — Azerbaijan’s troubled efforts to portray itself as a progressive and Western-oriented country took a beating this week with the announcement by a pro-government political party that it will pay $12,700 to anyone who cuts off the ear of a 75-year-old novelist.
The author is Akram Aylisli, and his crime is to have written a novella called “Stone Dreams” that is sympathetic to Armenians and recounts Azeri atrocities in the war between the two countries 20 years ago. Aylisli’s misfortune is to have had his work published, in Russia, at a time when an insecure regime in Azerbaijan is whipping up anti-Armenian fervor.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has already stripped Aylisli of his title of “People’s Writer” and the pension that goes with it. Aylisli’s son was fired from his job and parliament has demanded that Aylisli submit to a DNA test to prove he’s Azerbaijani. Over the weekend, book burnings were staged around the country.
But on Monday the head of the Modern Musavat party, Hafiz Hajiyev, told the Turan Information Agency that the time has come for Aylisli to be punished for portraying Azerbaijanis as savages.
“We have to cut off his ear,” Hajiyev said. “This decision is to be executed by members of the youth branch of the party.”
Watchdog groups, including Human Rights Watch and the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, denounced the threat. “I can’t believe he’s a man or human being,” Leyla Yunus, head of the Baku-based Institute of Peace and Democracy, said of Hajiyev. Even the Soviet era, Yunus said, didn’t feature “such horrible propaganda.”
The Interior Ministry pointed out that cutting off an ear is a crime and said it would investigate. But the government, rattled by protests in January, has been lashing out at its opponents and, as it has in the past, tried to distract public opinion by stirring up fears of an Armenian threat. Although a 1994 cease-fire stopped the war between the two former Soviet republics, Armenians still hold the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, and Aliyev frequently vows to take it back.
Antagonism is high, and Aylisli has fallen afoul of that. While Azerbaijan has spent billions of dollars in oil revenue on military equipment, efforts by the United States, Russia and France to broker a settlement have failed. Shots across the cease-fire line are becoming more common, and in the past week two Azeri soldiers and one Armenian have reportedly been killed.
E. Wayne Merry, a senior fellow for Europe and Eurasia at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, said recently that Nagorno-Karabakh is in a “pre-war” situation.
The government also has arrested two leading opposition politicians, Tofik Agublu and Ilgar Mammadov, and charged them with fomenting protests last month over an alleged brothel in the town of Ismayilli. The brothel, which was burned down, reportedly was owned by the son of one of Aliyev’s cabinet ministers.
The men will be held for two months and then face trial on charges that could bring three-year prison sentences. The arrests have been criticized by the European Union, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry has rejected the criticism as unfounded.
Mammadov is a member of the advisory board of a group called Revenue Watch, which called for the immediate release of the two men. The United States, which values Azerbaijan for its hostility to neighboring Iran but criticizes the country’s human rights practices, urged the government to observe due process.
In an e-mail Mammadov sent to his supporters on the eve of his Feb. 4 arrest, he noted that he had been to Ismayilli, in a lull between protests, to see for himself what was going on. “Now the government is trying to use that fact to speculate that I have organized that massive unrest,” he wrote. He noted that his Republican Alternative party is likely to nominate him to run for president against Aliyev in October.
Aylisli, who could not be reached Tuesday, told Radio Liberty two weeks ago that he dwelt on Azeri atrocities in “Stone Dreams” because that was his responsibility as an Azerbaijani writer. Let Armenian authors, he said, write about the atrocities of their side — notably, a 1992 massacre in the town of Khojaly, the memory of which has become a major rallying point for aggrieved Azeris.
Aylisli also has written thinly veiled attacks on both Aliyev and his father, Heydar Aliyev, the former president, for the brutality and corruption of their regimes. That’s an image that Azerbaijan has gone to great lengths to obscure, helped by the glitzy revival of its capital, Baku, thanks to revenue from gas and oil. Using events like last year’s Eurovision song contest in Baku, the government has painted Azerbaijan as an outpost of flash and modernity that outshines its neighbor, Iran.
The secular fatwa against Aylisli’s ear, though, could make that campaign an uphill battle.