Azerbaijani leaders love the Karabakh conflict, investigative journalist tells BBC

“I try not to cry so that I can be strong for my son,” mathematics teacher Sakina Gurbanova tells BBC’s Damien McGuinness, struggling to hold back the tears, as she shows me a picture of her son.

A handsome, smiling 27-year-old law graduate, Zaur was pulled off the street by plain-clothed policemen on 1 April. Since then he has been in jail awaiting trial, accused of possessing arms.

But his mother says their home was never searched for weapons and that he is being punished for criticising the government.

According to human rights groups, the charges are trumped up – an authoritarian government’s attempt to stamp out any Arab Spring-style uprising, they say. And now, faced with presidential elections in October, the authorities are accused of clamping down even more heavily.

New regulations mean that participants in anti-government demonstrations in the city centre face heavy fines worth more than the yearly earning of many Azeris. And tough new libel laws are criminalizing criticism online.

“The Azeri government is seen by critics as not only humourless but also nervous,” Damien McGuinness writes.

“I think the president’s family is using the nationalist card to distract people from the real problems, such as corruption,” says investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova. “They need an external enemy to keep people under control.”

“And in Azerbaijan, that enemy is Armenia. Earlier this year, just as the country was seeing an unusually high number of anti-government protests, a scandal erupted over an Azeri book which portrayed Armenians sympathetically. Fortuitous timing to distract from the unrest, whispered government critics. The novel had actually been published months before,” the article reads.

Its author, the renowned Azeri writer Akram Aylisli, was stripped of his literary awards and pension by President Aliyev. His books were publicly burned and protesters gathered outside his home chanting death threats – demonstrations which the authorities did not disperse.

This once-revered writer suddenly found himself castigated as a national villain. “What is the government afraid of?” the elderly writer said, shaking his head sadly, when I visited him in his Baku home.

Azeri soldier Ramil Safarov, on the other hand, was turned into the nation’s hero. He chopped the head off a sleeping Armenian with an axe in 2004 in Hungary. Last year he returned to Azerbaijan, where he was supposed to serve out the rest of a life sentence. Only he did not. He was given a hero’s welcome, was pardoned by the president and promoted to the rank of major, the article reminds.

“Of course he’s a hero,” one of Ramil Safarov’s neighbours told BBC’s Damien McGuinness.

“Armenians aren’t human,” another said. “I would have done the same.”

“I think the leaders just love this conflict, they embrace it,” the journalist Khadija Ismayilova believes. “The right thing to do right now would be to embrace Armenian citizens in Azerbaijan. But that would end the conflict. And the government doesn’t want that.”

Read the entire article by Damien McGuinness.

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