Azerbaijan's Prisoner Students

A small group of Azerbaijani prisoners have taken college entrance exams, but will others follow their example?

Azerbaijan's Prisoner Students

A small group of Azerbaijani prisoners have taken college entrance exams, but will others follow their example?

Eighteen-year-old Baku resident Akhmed Veliev was sentenced to three years in prison a year ago for stealing from a building site. He now hopes to become a qualified architect.

Veliev is one of eight young inmates who were admitted to college after prisoners were allowed for the first time this year to take exams behind bars.

The young prisoner will study in the architecture faculty of Baku’s Engineering and Construction College. Before he went to jail, he had not even thought of going to university.

“My father died in the battles for Nagorny Karabakh [in 1991-4],” he told IWPR in prison. “There was no time to study. I earned money washing cars to feed my mother and younger brother.”

When asked about his crime, he said, “The money I earned wasn’t enough. So when my mother fell ill I stole materials from the building site.”

Veliev is the beneficiary of a pilot project under which young prisoners are being given the chance to receive an education for the first time. The inmates were coached by five school-level teachers inside prison.

Four other prisoners will join the environmental protection faculty of the Azerbaijani Naval and Fishing Technical College. Others will study insurance and English.

Nazim Alekperov, head of the justice ministry’s penitentiary service, told IWPR, “I think that several young prisoners, serving sentences of between three and ten years for grave and moderately grave crimes have received a route back to normal life.”

However, although there is now school-level teaching inside Azerbaijani prisons, there are currently no ways of getting a university-level education there and no facilities for correspondence courses.

“To solve this problem we are studying international practice,” said Alekperov, who recently received advice from a British delegation, which included the former head of Penal Reform International, Baroness Vivien Stern; the governor of Edinburgh prison, David Croft; and the deputy head of the John Smith Memorial Trust, Joanna Lamb.

Malakhat Hasanova, a member of parliament and chair of the organisation Women Leaders, one of the supporters of prison education, said that there was currently neither the legislative basis nor the physical conditions for prisoners to study while in detention.

Hasanova said that she was pressing for the law to be changed during the current session of parliament - which has been welcomed by inmates who see the value of education.

Eighteen-year-old Elshad Akhmedov was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment two years ago for murder. “Shortly after I was arrested I became completely disillusioned with life,” he said. “But now I have the hope to be released and begin a normal new life.”

Rashid Mekhtiev, a 20-year-old born in Nagorny Karabakh, is serving a sentence for rape about which he said, “I committed a serious crime because I was a stupid boy. Every day I pray to Allah to forgive me my sin.” Now he wants to learn English and go into business.

Eldar Zeynalov, director of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan, is full of praise for the new schemes but wants to see them extended. “It is wonderful that young prisoners, who have not yet become hardened criminals, are thinking about another non-criminal life and are getting ready for their freedom,” he said.

Zeinalov said that in a prison system that he estimated had a population of 18-19,000, around three hundred prisoners who were keen to study.

He said he was particularly concerned about the life prisoners in the Gobustan prison, as they have been denied any form of education or training.

“Recently, a young prisoner Namig Veliev, who was sentenced at the age of 19 and is now 29 was refused the right to extra-mural higher education,” said Zeinalov. “He went straight from student life to a death cell.

“All the courts without exception, not wishing to harm their relations with the justice ministry, supported the prison administration. As a result, the boy is now appealing to the European Court of Human Rights.”

Alekperov said there were still legislative hurdles to overcome “but as soon as these are solved we will gladly give all prisoners the right to receive an education”.

Idrak Abbasov is a journalist with Ayna newspaper in Baku.

Karabakh, Azerbaijan
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