68-year-old linguist Novruzali Mammadov, Deputy President of the Talysh Cultural Center, Editor-in-Chief of the Talysh-language newspaper Tolyshi Sado (Voice of the Talysh), and Head of a Department at the Philology Institute of the Academy of Science of Azerbaijan, was charged with high treason and sentenced to 10 years in prison in Baku, Azerbaijan. Charges were also pressed against the paper’s administrator Elman Guliyev who was sentenced to 6 years. Initially, the prosecutor sought 12 and 8-year sentences for the two individuals.
What could be the reasons behind imposing such stiff sentences on two philologists, one of them being an elderly person? Judging by the verdict and the limited information from the hearings, which were closed to the public, the sentences were handed out absolutely for nothing. In his concluding address, Mammadov said: “I understand perfectly well that I am brought to trial for my ethnicity, for my being a Talysh”. He emphasized that he was proud of belonging to his nation and asked for a life sentence since 12 years would be an insufficient punishment for such a “crime”.
Mammadov was arrested on February 3, 2007 on charges of resisting police. During his first 15 days in custody, he was subjected to physical pressure in order to make him admit to being an Iranian spy. He was not allowed to contact his lawyer during this period of time and his relatives did not know where he was held.
Institute for Peace and Democracy, an Azerbaijani human rights group which would be generally hard to suspect of sympathizing with the Talysh national movement, sharply criticized the trial and described the charges against Mammadov and Guliyev as absurd. Recently the Institute for Peace and Democracy and the Federation of Azerbaijani Human Rights Groups declared Mammadov a political prisoner.
The charges included the transfer of information on Azerbaijani citizens – the paper’s staff – to the Iranian intelligence service, Mammadov appeals to international organizations (the UN and the OCSE) concerning the violations of the rights of ethnic minorities in Azerbaijan, the forming of a negative image of Azerbaijan, the request to the public television to open broadcasting programs in the Talysh language, the registration (!) of the Talysh Cultural Center and the Tolyshi Sado paper at the Ministry of Justice, the cooperation with foreign researchers, and the writing of research papers on the basis of the “intelligence data” gathered in the regions of the Talysh compact residence…
An account by human rights groups says that the trial has demonstrated the absurdity of the charges. For example, they included the inadmissibility of publishing discussion materials in the newspaper concerning such issues as the Talysh origin of poet Nezami, the propaganda of the Talysh language and culture, and the version that Turkic tribes settled down in Azerbaijan in the III century.
The investigation continued till October, 2007, but the evidence against Mammadov remained limited to the testimony given by Elman Guliyev who was arrested on February 16 in the framework of the same case. He said that he had received funding for the paper during his stay in Iran. The alleged amount – $15 mln – appeared unrealistic and was not confirmed at the trial. Since Mammadov pleaded not guilty to espionage and treason, the prosecution formulated the charges as treason by means of assisting Iran in its hostile activity and transferring to Iran the information necessary for the creation of an autonomous republic in the southern part of Azerbaijan. According to the prosecution, the information was contained … in the issues of Tolyshi Sado.
Azerbaijan’s human rights watchers say privately that the country’s authority cracked down on perhaps the most moderate of the Talysh activists who had always emphasized his loyalty to Azerbaijan. “We are citizens of Azerbaijan and serve the state of Azerbaijan”, said Mammadov in 2005 when he decisively separated himself from a conference on the Talysh issue which convened in Baku. “
“Novruzali Mammadov always served the interests of the Azerbaijani statehood and was invariably loyal to the Azerbaijani authority. Nobody can say that he has ever done anything against the interests of Azerbaijan or criticized the country’s authority”, said Farhadin Aboszoda, Editor-in-Chief of the Shavhisht newspaper and a popular leader of the Talysh movement.
It is hard to explain why Baku chose to turn this particular individual into a new Talysh national hero. Anyhow, this is exactly what has happened – the unfair sentence instilled a sense of togetherness in both Azerbaijan’s Talysh population and the Talysh communities residing in Russia and elsewhere outside of Azerbaijan. Talysh public organizations demand that Azerbaijan reconsider Mammadov’s case, calling the EU, Russia, and Iran to take urgent steps to influence Baku.
Aliakram Gummatov, a Talysh leader living in Holland, wrote in an address to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that the political regime in Azerbaijan is fighting against the entire Iranian and Muslim world and that most of the troubles suffered by the Talysh in the country are due to their being Iranian people. He says that since gaining independence Azerbaijan has been pursuing the goal of partitioning Iran and annexing a part of its territory, and that it has been engaging in anti-Iranian propaganda campaigns to this end. Gummatov writes: “We, the Talysh, are proud of being Iranian and do not think of ourselves as being separate from our historical homeland, that is, Iran. Do not let Azerbaijan’s hideous pan-Turkist regime wipe the Talysh people off the face of the Earth!” In Gummatov’s opinion, it is Tehran’s indifference to the destiny of the Talysh and the close cooperation between Iran and Azerbaijan on a number of issues that made it possible for Azerbaijan’s anti-Muslim regime to treat the Talysh the way it does.
Tehran’s official position on the Talysh issue in Azerbaijan is simple: allegedly, it does not exist. Probably, this stance is due to Iran’s fear of the Talysh issue being raised in its own territory, where the Talysh community counts about 500,000 people (roughly as many as in Azerbaijan – available estimates vary from 60,000 to 1,000,000).
The clearly absurd Mammadov’s case which, however, ended with real sentences, probably pursued two objectives. Talysh activists believe that the sentencing of the 69-year-old linguist Novruzali Mammadov by the Azerbaijani Court for Grave Crimes is supposed to teach the Talysh struggling for their rights a lesson and to demonstrate Azerbaijan’s loyalty to Washington on the eve of the US offensive against Iran.
It is unlikely, however, that the harsh treatment of the elderly scholar is going to help Azerbaijan accomplish its objectives as the Talysh community in the country truly faces real and serious problems. Farhadin Aboszoda said in an interview to the Ethnoglobus internet outlet that currently using the very word Talysh is prohibited and this is a gross violation of the rights of the Talysh people. The Azerbaijani government is renaming the villages and towns bearing Talysh names. Nearly all the nations and languages of the world are studied in Azerbaijan’s Academy of Science and universities, but there is no Talysh department anywhere.
Ismail Shabanov, President of the alysh Diaspora group whose institutional assembly convened in Moscow in June, 2008, said in an interview for the Rosbalt news agency: “A massive resettlement of Kurds to the originally Talysh-populated southern regions of Azerbaijan is underway. Some 5,000 Kurds have moved to Lenkoran alone, plus some 500-1,500 people per village. Intolerable conditions for the locals are being created: they cannot buy land or open businesses. While the Talysh population is strangulated by excessive regulation, the newcomers are given preferential treatment. All the young Talysh people have left the region. In broad daylight, we see Azerbaijan destroy the ancient civilization and the language in which Avesta, the primary collection of sacred texts of Zoroastrianism, was written”.
Ismail Shabanov invites Baku to dialog, but all he hears in response are accusations of “openly supporting Russia” and helping it to intervene in Azerbaijan’s domestic affairs.
In contrast to Gummatov, who lives in emigration in Europe (he was deported from Azerbaijan after spending many years in prison for an attempt to establish the Talysh-Mugan Republic), Shabanov, like the majority of the Talysh people, expects help not from Iran but from Russia. He says: “For all the Talysh, Russia is a great power, the successor to the USSR which, in its turn, was the successor to the Russian Empire”. In his view, Russia has the legal and moral right to settle domestic ethnic problems in the former Soviet Republics. According to the 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchay between Russia and Ian, Russia became responsible for the security of the Talysh population. Therefore, it is not that Russia is intervening in the affairs of recently established countries – it merely fulfils its obligations. “Russia is our metropolis, it is well aware of our problems and it should not remain silent”, says Shabanov. Russians fought with Persia and reached Tehran “not in order to let the people in Baku sit over there selling oil”, says the leader of the Talysh community in Russia.
The Talysh people find themselves in a difficult situation. “Whenever we raise our voices in protest, we are accused of separatism and of fueling inter-ethnic hostilities”, says Farhadin Aboszoda. He stresses that the actual Talysh objectives are limited to gaining autonomy within Azerbaijan.
Perhaps Moscow, should hear the Talysh people, whose appeals have remained unanswered so far, and pay greater attention to them, especially given Baku’s not too friendly position with respect to Russia (and the overly friendly one to Saakashvili’s Georgia) and Azerbaijan’s increasingly visible drift towards the NATO orbit