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

Harlem Shakedown in Azerbaijan

In latest political arrest, officials accuse youth activist of making dance video.
By Shahla Sultanova

The Azerbaijani authorities are continuing to harass dissidents, with a special focus on youth activists.

In the latest case, a court in Baku ordered 21-year-old Ilkin Rustamzade to be placed in pre-trial custody for two months while a criminal investigation takes place on a charge of “hooliganism”.

This case stands out even among a spate of recent arrests because of the nature of the offence Rustamzade is alleged to have committed. The charges relate to a YouTube video in which a few young Azerbaijanis perform their version of the worldwide Harlem Shake dance craze. Rustamzade’s lawyer Nemet Kerimov said his client was accused of having filmed the incident, and denied having done so.

“In any case, the video does not really show an act of hooliganism,” Kerimov added.

The Harlem Shake rendition is brief, and the only passers-by visible are in the distance and seem oblivious.

Ulvi Hasanli, head of the Free Youth organisation to which Rustamzade belongs, said it was quite clear why he was arrested.

Earlier this year, Rustamzade was involved in using Facebook to organise street protests about conscript deaths in the army. A youth group called NIDA also played a role in arranging the demonstrations. (See Azerbaijanis Protest Against Army Deaths and Azerbaijan Government Worried by Facebook Activism.)

Hasanli said Rustamzade had been called in for interrogation after the arrest of seven members of the NIDA youth group in March and April. “Most of the questions were about those protests,” he added.

The charges brought against detained NIDA members include possession of arms and narcotics, which they and their supporters deny.

The official narrative about the NIDA case has mixed allegations of “Facebook revolution” with suggestions that the youth group planned to engage in violence, and hints that foreign powers were behind the whole thing.

Aygun Panjaliyeva, a NIDA board member, said the allegations were totally fictitious.

“It’s unusual to see new forces emerging with new views in Azerbaijan. The arrest of NIDA members is intended to send an intimidating message to those young people,” she said. “Anything political in this country worries the government.”

One of those under arrest is Rashadat Akhundov, 29, a NIDA board member charged with possessing a firearm.

“My husband’s arrest is related to his affiliation with NIDA and him being active in protest actions against non-combat soldier deaths,” said his wife Turkan, 26, who gave birth to their first child in April and is now caring for him alone. “They want to intimidate young activists. The charges against my husband are trumped up. It’s nonsense. Rashadat never encouraged violent struggle against the regime.”

She added that their house had never been searched, and prosecutors had never told her where the firearm was said to have been found.

Sakhina Gurbanova, whose son Zaur Gurbanli, 27, is also under arrest, said he lived at home with his parents, and their house was not searched either.

Gurbanli’s lawyer Aslan Ismayilov confirmed that he had not been informed of where the alleged weapons find was made.

“It’s a fabricated charge. It’s because of his political activity with the NIDA movement,” he said.

Eldar Sultanov, spokesman for Azerbaijan’s chief prosecutor, said there was evidence that Zaur Gurbanli had been in possession of petrol bombs and had delivered them to others for safekeeping. He did not comment on Akhundov.

Yevda Abramov, a member of parliament from the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party, insisted that the NIDA activists had broken the law and were being manipulated by foreigners.

Abramov, who is deputy chairman of parliament’s human rights committee, was confident that the suspects were guilty ahead of any trials.

“If these young people are ignored, it will be impossible to rein them in later,” Abramov said. “This is an election year. There are some states that are jealous of Azerbaijan – neighbouring countries and certain European countries. Azerbaijan has more enemies than friends. They [enemies] fund certain groups, and these young people were the beneficiaries of that funding.”

The next presidential election is due on October 16, Ilham Aliyev is all but certain to win. He succeeded his father Heydar Aliyev the year of his death, 2003. The elder Aliyev had run Azerbaijan, on and off, since the 1960s.

On past record, election results are a foregone conclusion in Azerbaijan. Why, then, do the authorities seem so jittery about informal youth groups?

“The reason is that the regime is profoundly lacking in confidence and is unstable,” Leyla Aliyeva, a political analyst and head of the Baku-based Centre for National and International Studies, said. “I think that deep down inside, they understand that true stability is derived from popular legitimacy, from the popular vote. Because they sense that they lack this popular legitimacy, they feel they need to react to protests and intimidate the population, in order to prevent instability or risks to their rule.”

Shahla Sultanova is a freelance journalist in Azerbaijan.