Last week, Bakhtiyar Hajiyev spent his 29th birthday in an Azeri jail for the crime of refusing military service. At present he has remained incarcerated for more than a month.
In Azerbaijan, a country where extralegal detentions and human rights abuses are tragically normal, this particular arrest has caused a stir in the international media due to Mr. Hajiyev’s status as a high profile and Western educated opposition figure, a parliamentary candidate, and a protest organizer. On a more personal level this arrest has stirred me, because I know Bakhtiyar – with whom I attended graduate school – to be a peaceful and honorable man, and one who passionately loves his country.
While Bakhtiyar’s detention is almost certainly politically motivated, the specific crime with which he is charged has a controversial history in Azerbaijan. The criminal status of conscientious objectors in that country has long served as a point of contention with the international community and yet has remained unchanged despite multiple international agreements (and a constitutional amendment) to the contrary.
Prior to Azeri independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Azerbaijan had already suffered through bloody separatist skirmishes with ethnic Armenians in its Nagorno-Karabakh region. Once the Soviets left for good however, this strife escalated into a full-scale war with neighboring Armenia which lasted three years and cost tens of thousands of lives. Following a 1994 armistice, sporadic clashes over the region have continued and anti-Armenian sentiments and fears, “Blood Memory” , remain an important part of Azeri political discourse to this day, coagulating around wrongs dating back as far as the days of the Ottoman Empire.
Given this historical context, mandatory conscription is not at all surprising and all male Azeri citizens between the ages of 18-35 are expected to serve at least one year of military service unless they are deemed physically or mentally unfit to do so by the state. This principle is enshrined under the Azeri Constitution of 1995 in Article 76: titled “Defense of the Motherland.”
Of course, universal national service is not in itself particularly unusual. Countries across the military spectrum – from peacefully isolationist Switzerland to regional powerhouse Israel – demand similar sacrifices from their citizens. Azerbaijan’s case is a bit different however. Unlike the majority of conscripting countries, the Azeri state makes no alternative provisions for conscientious objectors (those opposed to military service as a matter of pacifism, tradition or religion) save prison. This draconian policy came increasingly under attack in the nineteen nineties from groups such as the UN Human Rights Committee and Amnesty International.
Then in 2002, as a condition for club membership, the Council of Europe managed to extract a promise from the Azeri government to allow an alternative form of national service to those minorities who were unwilling to bear arms. The Constitution was amended for this purpose and a second section was added, and ratified, into Article 76:
Art. 76 sec. 2: If beliefs of citizens come into conflict with service in the army then in some cases envisaged by legislation alternative service instead of regular army service is permitted.
The Azeri Parliament has never gotten around to drafting the “envisaged” legislation however, and to this day no actual alternatives have been created nor exculpatory cases defined.
In 2005, Mahir Bagirov, a twenty-eight year old doctor, new father and Jehovah’s Witness was arrested for refusing to report for military service. His lawyers argued the case all the way to the Supreme Court which found that, despite its wording, Art. 76 did not in itself grant the possibility of an alternate service, rather it merely legalized the possibility that an alternate service might be created by the legislature. The court further reasoned that since such legislation had not actually been enacted, the constitutional provision was irrelevant to Mr. Bagirov’s case. He served over a year in prison between his pretrial detention and his sentence.
In response, the Council of Europe began to criticize the Azeri government for “failing to meet its commitments,” backing off only when Azeri parliamentarians assured the Council that the missing legislation would be in place by early 2006. Five years later, there are still no legislative provisions for alternative national service, and Azerbaijan remains a full member of the Council of Europe. Throughout this time conscientious objectors (many of them religious minorities like Mr. Bagirov) have continued to face harsh prison sentences, and yet generated relatively little political or media interest.
Now with this high profile arrest the controversy is once again in the news. And yet, Bakhtiyar’s incarceration is not about Article 76. Azerbaijan’s backwards conscription policy is being used as a façade, a fictitious yet useful precedent for removing a person deemed dangerous by a corrupt and panicky state. In a letter smuggled out of his cell early last month, Bakhtiyar claims to have been beaten, disallowed contact with his family and friends and denied legal counsel. Even given the callousness with which Azerbaijan has historically treated conscientious objectors, this is something else.
The Azeri government is no different from other failing regional autocracies such as Lybia, Yemen and Bahrain that have proved themselves all too willing to brutalize their own people when the chips are down. Many opposition and youth leaders, as well as simple protesters have likewise been arrested and detained on charges ranging from the unforgivably vague (“sedition”, “behaving dishonorably”) to the outright absurd (“using of abusive words.”) As such, it seems very likely that were there no compulsory military service in Azerbaijan, or had Bakhtiyar previously served, he would regardless have joined his opposition colleagues in prison.
That being said, I believe that Bakhtiyar will soon be free – if for no other reason than because it is in the best interest of the ruling regime in Baku to free him. The young dissident’s former professors and classmates from Harvard, as well as his supporters from around the world are lobbying on his behalf to media outlets and political forces worldwide. The arrest has already been condemned by a US Senator, European Parliamentarians, The New York Times and myriad international media outlets. Protests over the weekend in the Azeri capital led to street violence and hundreds of arrests. Even the Azeri Embassy in Washington DC was recently picketed. At a time when international support can mean all the difference for autocrats facing revolting populations and difficult choices, this is no small matter.
Bakhtiyar’s personal situation aside however, the Council of Europe needs to step up and demand that Azerbaijan keep its promises. Europe defines and rightly prides itself on its human rights record, as well as its progressive policies towards minority populations. Both Belarus and Kazakhstan have been denied membership to the Council due to their failure to meet these standards. Azerbaijan’s inclusion was predicated on an unfulfilled promise and Europe should insist on what it is owed from the Azeri government – or else expel it from the Council. Should Europe fail to act other promises, to say nothing of the very notion of what it means to be European, may lose much of their meaning.
In graduate school I took a class requiring a political speech before a roomful of peers. I spoke on Venezuela, taking easy shots at the Chavez Regime and receiving some decent laughs and a similarly decent grade. Bakhtiyar’s speech followed mine. It was a long one. Hesitantly optimistic in its way, but at the same time expecting no levity and offering none. In recent weeks, I have often thought about this speech although I can remember very little of its actual content. I may not have been paying enough attention or perhaps, knowing so little about Azerbaijan, I could not follow it. What I do remember was the disarming earnestness, the soft-spoken passion and resolve. I hope to someday ask Bakhtiyar what he said in class that day, and whether he would still say it now. I like to think that he would.