Never shy of controversy, Azerbaijan has come into the spotlight last week after a pro-government party in the country offered a reward to anyone who cuts off the ear of a controversial novelist. Modern Equality party leader, Hafiz Haciyev, has announced that his party will pay a 10,000 manats ($12,700) reward to the person who brings the ear of novelist Akram Aylisli.
The announcement has come amidst public protests, including book burning demonstrations against Aylisli, calling him “a traitor to the Azerbaijani nation”. Aylisli’s novel “Stone Dreams”, has caused outcry over its treatment of the clashes between Azerbaijanis and Armenians in Baku and the Nagorno-Karabakh region, the largely Armenian breakaway region that split from Azerbaijan in the early 1990s. Aylisli’s depiction of these events has incited protest for its sympathetic representation of Armenians. “Stone Dreams”, published recently in the Russian literary journal “Druzhba narodov”, tells the story of two Azeri men who try to protect their Armenian neighbors from ethnic violence. It has been denounced for depicting only Azerbaijani attacks against Armenians, while incidents of Armenian aggression against Azerbaijanis, such as the February 1992 Khojaly massacre, have not been mentioned in his book.
The backlash against the author has been strong, with President Ilham Aliyev announing his decision last week to strip the 75-year-old Aylisli of his pension and state honors–referring to his honorary title as the “People’s Writer”. Aliyev defended this action, saying that his measures against Aylisli were a just punishment “for distorting facts in Azerbaijani history and insulting the feelings of the Azerbaijani people.”
Aylisli has responded to being stripped of national honors for “insulting the dignity” of his country,saying:
“Armenians are not enemies for me. How can they be? I am a writer living in the 21st century. A solution to Nagorno-Karabakh is being delayed, and hostility is growing between the two nations. I want to contribute to a peaceful solution. I did not say anything insulting, I did not betray my country,” he said. “I describe how an Azerbaijani helps an Armenian. What is bad about this?”
In response to the threats made against him by Hafiz Haciyev, Aylisli said,
“In any adequate country, those making such statements would be prosecuted. However, Azeri police have long been tolerant to the absurd statements by this person.”
However, Aylisli has asked that the Azerbaijani law enforcement agencies provide for his security, protection which, if not given, would force Aylisli and his family to leave the country.
The turn of new year has marked a challenging start in Azerbaijan, with protests spreading from the capital city, Baku, and the country gaining increasing international scrutiny for its crackdowns against protesters -including the arrest of Azerbaijani blogger Emin Milli and dozens of other nonviolent demonstrators were detained and later charged in Baku on January 26. A move which incited Amnesty International to petition the Council of Europe to stand up for the right to protest peacefully in Azerbaijan.