Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Cudgels and Crutches

President Aliev has cracked down hard on Karabakh war invalids who dared to ask for more
By Zarema Velikhanova
The closing moments of the war veterans' trial that ended July 19 were sensational. After the judge pronounced a sentence of imprisonment, one defendant, Alizamin Dargiakhov, slashed himself with a razor-blade, shouting, "You wanted our blood: here it is."

Other defendants banged their heads against the bars of the cage they were held in, while mothers struggled to console their children. The judge read his verdict through to the end before rushing from the court, pursued by his guards and the cries of shocked relatives.

The prosecutor general had demanded prison terms of up to six years for the 16 handicapped men in the dock. He was not disappointed.

Last January, Azeri invalids from the Nagorno-Karabakh war of 1991-94 went on hunger strike to demand a substantial increase in their monthly pensions, which range from 15 to 26 US dollars. The strike was unprecedented in its size, with 500-600 members of the Karabakh Invalid Society, OKI, participating.

The strikers claimed that their very survival was threatened. Until recently, they could start a small business or a shop, or drive one of the minibuses in the public transport fleet, earning sufficient income to feed the whole family.

But these privileges have gradually been revoked. The authorities are miserly in general in social payments, and relations with the invalids have spiralled from bad to worse, radicalising the OKI against the government.

Now, not only are pension rises rejected, but municipal authorities had begun to close down their shops. Local officials keen to take over the transport business, began harassing invalids. The pension is roughly equivalent to the average consumer's minimum monthly expenditure of 97 US dollars, as estimated by the Confederation of Trade Unions. In any case, invalids often do not receive their benefits, as officials, for example, seek to extract bribes for allowing them to take advantage of certain privileges that are supposed to be granted. As a result of these pressures over the past few years, there have been several dozens of cases of suicide and attempted suicide among invalids.

The OKI press secretary, Rei Kerimoglu, told Radio Free Europe on May 1 that 56 war invalids had died during the past three years, and a further 15 committed suicide, due to deteriorating social conditions and medical neglect.

The entire country followed the two-month strike, with the media publishing daily reports from doctors monitoring the participants physical condition. The streets leading to their association's headquarters in Baku, the capital, were blocked to all except the strikers' doctors. Later, even they were prevented from crossing the police line.

The authorities were unbowed. President Heidar Aliev turned his back on journalists seeking to shed some light on the strike. He said he had received no appeal from the invalids, a statement denied by the OKI association. Meanwhile, the public mood heated up: it seemed that the death of a single hunger striker might spark a flame.

In early February, the government convinced the invalids to halt the strike, promising to look into their demands. A state commission was set up by members of Association of Veterans of Karabakh War and Shekhid Families, an organisation with close government links, that was formed when the registration of the OKI was suspended.

The virtual dissolution of the OKI, in late January, led 19 Karabakh invalids to launch a second hunger strike on February 15, in which they demanded the registration of their organisation and the resignation of Ramiz Mehtiev, chief of the presidential staff. Supportive members of the public and relatives of the strikers gathered in front of the associations headquarters. Four days later, the government sent in the police. Armed with cudgels and wearing helmets, they attacked and beat hundreds of war veterans, many in wheel chairs and on crutches, arresting 30. Several cars were set on fire.

After a lengthy investigation, 16 of the hunger strikers were charged with organising or participating in actions against public order, resisting arrest and the use of force against police or conspiracy to commit crime. Meanwhile, pro-government media launched a campaign of disinformation aimed at discrediting the OKI. Allegations of embezzlement against Unix, a company founded by OKI to commercialise the small businesses run by Karabakh invalids, turned out to be groundless.

The Council of Europe, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and Amnesty International closely monitored the trial of the invalids, which opened on June 20. The court's bias was clear from the outset. Statements by police "victims" of the demonstration, which spoke of alleged injuries to officers resulting from catalogued the backs or arms allegedly injured by invalids wildly swinging their crutches, caused embarrassment and some laughter in the court.

On one of the trial's closing days, several policemen refused to submit any further statements, switching their support to the invalids' demands instead. And a video of the disturbance, shown to the court, emphasised the violence used by the police in dealing with the demonstrators and their supporters.

The chances for a fair trial were reduced further by the defendants' refusal to have legal representation, convinced that the outcome of the trial would be rigged. When the Council of Europe monitoring group arrived in Baku, court sessions were interrupted and the verdict only returned after group had left. Meanwhile, the defendants' health deteriorated from the long stay in prison: one collapsed several times and was diagnosed with heart disease.

The fears of human rights activists and the media were fully justified on July 19 when the court returned its verdict. The judge sentenced eight OKI invalids to one to six years in prison, while the remaining eight received suspended sentences. The defendants can appeal, but even their lawyers admit that there is little hope.

With the trial over, an OKI support committee, composed of politicians, lawyers and journalists, is gathering all the investigative evidence, court transcripts and other documents for publication, alongside media coverage of the invalids' case.

But a more urgent concern is for the welfare of the jailed veterans. With 30 prisoners confined in a ten-bed cell, the invalids are forced to sleep in shifts. Warm in winter, the cells are unbearable in summer, and disease - including tuberculosis - is rife. And their families outside have also been stripped of meagre pensions they enjoyed before the hunger strike.

Life for the OKI invalids who remain free is also getting worse. The pro-government veterans' organisation that replaced the OKI victimises former strikers by making it hard for them to claim their pensions, regular health checks and other privileges. The OKI, still in existence, faces overwhelming pressure from the authorities, which have seized its assets and closed it regional offices. The association has been forced to move its headquarters four times in the past few months.

"It is not easy legally to struggle against the government of Heidar Aliev," said the OKI chairman, Etimad Asadov.

Zarema Velikhanova is a staff writer for the Baku-based newspaper Ekho.

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