A War Veteran Goes On Hunger Strike And Invigorates Azerbaijan's Opposition

BAKU -- For 38 days Saleh Rustamli had been refusing food in prison. On December 13, he said he was going to stop drinking water, too.

The 58-year-old, a representative of one of the country's two main opposition groupings, the Popular Front Of Azerbaijan Party (AXCP), is on hunger strike to demand his release from jail.

Rustamli was arrested in May 2018 when he visited Azerbaijan from Russia, where he had been living since 1998. Back in his home country to attend a funeral, he was sentenced to more than seven years in prison after a court found him guilty of money laundering for the alleged transfer of $420,000 to a bank account connected to the AXCP.

Rustamli has rejected all of the charges against him, calling them politically motivated. The New York-based Human Rights Watch has called the allegations "spurious."

After the oil-rich former Soviet republic's victory last year in a six-week war against Armenia over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, public levels of support for the regime of President Ilham Aliyev were at an all-time high. Now, however, with long-standing social and economic problems reappearing from amid the haze of triumphant nationalism, the country's opposition is galvanized once again and the government is fighting back.

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After visiting him in prison in the capital, Baku, on December 13, one of Rustamli's lawyers, Bahruz Bayramov, confirmed that his client was starting a dry hunger strike, meaning he would cut out water in addition to food. He said that Rustamli had lost 16 to 17 kilograms since the beginning of his protest action.

According to the lawyer, Rustamli's condition continues to deteriorate, he is unable to “sleep due to the pain," and is "very weak." He said that a group of doctors from Azerbaijan's Penitentiary Service, plus some visiting physicians from Turkey, had visited Rustamli in prison and said that his condition was critical.

Shut out of free and fair elections, Azerbaijan's opposition has been decimated during the Aliyev reign, with the president often referring to the country's opposition as "enemies." Critics of the government say the authorities frequently seek to silence dissent by jailing opposition activists, reporters, human rights defenders, and civil society advocates. International rights groups have also accused the government of torture.

The Azerbaijani government received a boost in popularity after last year's six-week war, where Baku gained control of parts of Nagorno-Karabakh as well as adjacent territories that had been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces since the end of a separatist war in 1994.

The war victory took the wind out of the sails of Azerbaijan's opposition, who for years had been campaigning for the rights of those Azerbaijanis displaced by the war, and who might now have a chance to return to their former homes. Both the AXCP and Musavat -- Azerbaijan’s other main opposition group -- supported the war, although they did raise concerns over the Russian-brokered cease-fire. Some opposition parties even praised Aliyev, whose popularity soared after the victory and who became seen by many as a national hero.

That fragile and temporary alliance seems now to have come to an end. Rustamli's hunger strike has inspired Azerbaijan's opposition to take to the streets once again, with a number of protests for his release taking place in Baku.

On December 1, about 40 protesters were detained, many of them chanting, "Freedom for Saleh Rustamli," in downtown Baku. At least five were jailed by courts for up to 30 days.

[IMG | SOURCE: https://gdb.rferl.org/cb520000-0aff-0242-1970-08d9b4bd5c31_w250_r0_s.jpg | ALT: Protesters in support of Rustamli are rounded up in Baku on December 1.]
Protesters in support of Rustamli are rounded up in Baku on December 1.

At the December 1 protest, Tofiq Yaqublu, a leading member of Musavat, was arrested and sustained multiple injuries while in police custody. Yaqublu, 60, said that police beat him after demanding that he say on camera that he would stop criticizing Azerbaijan’s leadership.

Appearing in a video after his release, with purple, swollen bruises covering his half-closed eyes, Yaqublu said he was nearly suffocated by officers in police custody. Before that, he said, they "handcuffed my hands behind my back, put a plastic bag over my head, and started beating me ruthlessly."

After the pummeling, Yaqublu said that he was left in a remote place where he thought he was going to be killed. The Interior Ministry has denied Yaqublu's account of the incident.

Over a year after the end of the second Karabakh war, old problems such as economic mismanagement and corruption have resurfaced once again, along with fresh ones such as the government's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. (There are no reliable, independent polls in Azerbaijan that gauge the popularity of the president or government.) Many Azerbaijanis are also upset at the presence of more than 2,000 Russian peacekeepers deployed to monitor the cease-fire. Russia has traditionally backed Armenia over Karabakh and is not seen by many Azerbaijanis as an impartial force.

Another protest followed on December 11, with tens of female AXCP activists gathering at a downtown Baku subway station. A number of them were detained by police.

Human rights groups in Azerbaijan have recognized Rustamli as a political prisoner, with international rights watchdogs and the United States calling for his immediate release. In recent years, dozens of AXCP members have been arrested and some imprisoned on what their supporters have called trumped-up charges.

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price tweeted on December 11 that the Biden administration is "deeply troubled by reports of Saleh [Rustamli's] worsening condition. It is urgent that Azerbaijan release him on humanitarian grounds so he can receive adequate medical care."

It is unclear if the seriousness of Rustamli's case will sway the Azerbaijani authorities. An amnesty law was adopted by parliament in November for veterans of both Karabakh wars, but Rustamli was not included on the list.

With most Azerbaijanis consuming a diet of state-controlled media, Rustamli plight is not well known across the country. Fellow oppositionists have taken to the streets in the capital and activists have raised awareness on social media, but their numbers are still relatively small.

After Azerbaijan's independence in 1991, Rustamli, a graduate of Baku's Institute of Physical Education, served as the head of the Gadabay District in western Azerbaijan. In June 1993, the former dissident and President Abulfaz Elchibey, who was also the founder of Popular Front Of Azerbaijan, was ousted in a coup. Rustamli also quit and, five years later, moved to Russia.

He was remembered by many in the region for his good governance but also as a war veteran, for his role in fighting the 1988-94 war over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh.

While Azerbaijan lost the war, Rustamli, along with his fellow fighters, captured an Armenian enclave, the strategic village of Bashkend (Archvashen). It was one of the country's few gains in the conflict, which killed an estimated 30,000 people. His brother, Taleh, said that during the first Karabakh war, Rustamli sent his brothers and close relatives to the trenches in the border villages and said, "Stay there. People will not run away when they see you there."

It is unclear if the seriousness of Rustamli's case will sway the Azerbaijani authorities. An amnesty law was adopted by parliament in November for veterans of both Karabakh wars, but Rustamli was not included on the list.

Lawyer Bayramov said he has appealed to the country's Supreme Court but a court date has not yet been given.

On December 6, another of Rustamli's lawyers, Agil Layij, applied to the Nizami District Court in an attempt to have him released from prison on health grounds.

The pressure on the authorities increased on December 14 when at least seven members of Azerbaijan's opposition announced that they will start hunger striking in support of Rustamli.

Written and reported by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service with contributions from RFE/RL's Luke Allnutt in Prague.