Azeri Farmers Say Land Seized for Ski Resort
Farmers in northern Azerbaijan are fighting a legal battle over a luxury holiday complex built on land they owned. They say the payment they were offered was derisory, and then their farmland was seized anyway.
Villagers from Kuzun in the Gusar district are suing Azerbaijan’s culture and tourism ministry, which is building the resort. But in the two years since court hearings began, they have yet to make headway.
Shahdag is Azerbaijan’s largest tourist facility, sprawling over 20 square kilometres. Begun in 2006, it will not be completed until 2016, although some facilities like hotels and sports facilities are already open. This winter, Shahdag’s snowy hillsides hosted their first skiers.
Mirza Ahmadov belongs to one of 81 local families who lost their farmlands to the new resort. He says he acquired his plot in 1996, when the government distributed state-owned land to the emerging class of private farmers.
“They came to me just the once, and said they’d would pay me 24 manats per 100 square metres,” Ahmadov told IWPR. “I thought it was a laughable price, and I asked for any official document where that price was written down. It often happens that officially, the land is sold for big money but they pay the actual owner a pittance. They refused to show me the document, so I rejected their offer.
“Then they seized my land and began building on it.”
Like other residents, Ahmadov is bitter at the way he has been treated.
“We used to feed ourselves by selling crops from this land,” he said. “They paid me no compensation, and my family is left with nothing while the resort pulls in big money.”
Mirzabay Mirzayev is just as unhappy as he watches a five-star hotel go up on land that once sustained his family.
“At least they could have given us a decent amount compensation for the land they took over, so that we’d have able to start a small business and continue feeding our families,” he said.
Anar Qasimli, the lawyer acting for the disposed farmers, believes authorities are dragging out the court case in the hope it will never end. The first hearings took place in the capital Baku, but they were shifted to the town of Sumgait a year later, and finally to Gusar.
“They are deliberately prolonging the case. We aren’t expecting a fair decision from the courts anyway, but we have to go through all the local courts before we can apply to the European Court [of Human Rights],” he told IWPR. “That’s why the case is being passed from one court to another – just to win time.”
The substance of the case is that inadequate compensation offers were followed by forcible confiscation. Qasimli believes the sum offered – 24 manats (30 US dollars) per 100 square metres – was so low as to be unlawful.
Intiqam Humbatov, spokesman for the culture and tourism ministry, told IWPR that the price was set independently by an external organisation called Participants in the Property Market.
“The ministry doesn’t get involved in such matters,” Humbatov said. “We know there are people who aren’t happy about the price that was set, and that they’ve brought a court case. I am sure the court will return a fair verdict.”
Some confusion arose when the hearing in Baku was presented with a report from Participants in the Property Market which valued the land at 2,400 manats per 100 square metres, not 24 manats.
The organisation’s chief executive, Ramil Osmanli, told IWPR that the figure was a genuine error that was quickly amended.
“We’re talking about agricultural land. A hundred square metres of that land would never cost 2,400 manats,” he said.
Annagi Hajibeyli, who heads the Association of Lawyers of Azerbaijan, believes the villagers have a strong argument with the second element of their case – that the confiscation was unlawful.
He explained that the government does have powers of compulsory purchase, but these only apply when the land is needed for projects of national importance – major roads and communications infrastructure, defence, border protection and the like.
“The law does not include business construction by government among the ‘needs of the state’,” Hajibeyli told IWPR. What that meant, he added, was that construction should not have begun at the site until the government had agreed a purchase price with the landowners.
Rovshan Agayev of the Support for Economic Initiatives think tank says accountability and transparency have been notably lacking.
“Starting with the land purchase, which looked more like a confiscation, the whole process… has not been transparent. They haven’t accounted to the public for their use of public funds,” he said.
Back at the resort, locals like Shirinbala Hajiverdiyev feel powerless in the face of the growing
A restaurant now sits on the land he once owned.
“Every day, happy, well-fed people come out of this restaurant. What can I say about the owners who are making money from them?” he asked. “My family is sitting at home half-fed, and waiting for our case to make it to the European court, waiting for justice to be done.”
Gular Mehdizade is a journalist with the Bizim Yol newspaper in Azerbaijan.