In mid-November, an Azerbaijani court sentenced Rashad Ramazanov, an Islamist blogger, to nine years in prison on charges of drug possession. Two weeks earlier, Taleh Bagir-zade, a young and charismatic Shi’a cleric, received a two-year prison term after being convicted on similar charges.
The two cases highlight a disturbing fact about Azerbaijan: the government is manipulating the criminal justice system in order to silence all sorts of dissent.
It’s no coincidence that authorities arrested Ramazanov after he made anti-government statements on Facebook, characterizing President Ilham Aliyev’s administration as a "diabolical regime." Bagir-zade, meanwhile, was arrested after he gave a fiery sermon accusing the government of corruption, and denouncing President Aliyev as a zalim, or despot. When being interrogated by police, they both contend they were questioned about their statements, not drug possession.
The comments made by Ramazanov and Bagir-zade fit within the boundaries of free speech. Thus, both men deserve to be considered prisoners of conscience – counted among many dozens of political prisoners currently in Azerbaijani jails. Their sentences should be condemned by the United States and EU and their release should be demanded, as in the case of other political prisoners.
Washington and Brussels have repeatedly voiced strong concerns about the political climate in Azerbaijan, and pressured Baku on individual rights cases, including those of opposition politicians Ilgar Mammadov and Tofig Yaqublu. At the same time, the United States and EU have been much more hesitant to publicly raise the cases of Islamic activists, such as Ramazanov and Bagir-zade. Upsetting a friendly government over people often portrayed as anti-Western and pro-Iranian doesn’t seem worth it.
This needs to change. At the core of the issue is a question of principle. However disagreeable some of their views, Islamists have the right to pursue them peacefully, just like liberals, nationalists, communists and others. Religiously-inspired politics is not a monopoly of the Muslim world, as the rise of the Christian right in the United States and orthodox Jewish groups in Israel attests. Many of these groups espouse deeply illiberal views. Yet the notion of banning them would strike most people in these countries as abhorrent. Bad ideas should be combatted via vigorous public debate and the ballot box, not bans and arrests. This is as true in Azerbaijan, as it is in the West.
On a practical level, ignoring human rights abuses against Islamists can be counter-productive over the longer term. The examples of Egypt under Mubarak and Iran under the Shah are important to remember. In both cases, the general public perceived a double-standard on the part of Western states, in which human rights concerns were reserved only for secular and liberal elements of society, while repression against Islamists tended to be tolerated. Such a perception - not always unjustified - denied the West influence over Islamists once they achieved the positions of power. This, in turn, harmed Western interests and diverted the revolutions in Iran and Egypt from a liberal trajectory, contributing to an oppressive theocracy in Iran and a fundamentalist presidency soon to be followed by a military coup in Egypt.
While it is unlikely that Islamists will ever gain the same kind of power in Azerbaijan as they did in Iran or Egypt, they are nevertheless likely to be at some point in the future in Baku a political force to be reckoned with. It is in the interests of both the West and Azerbaijan to integrate them into a democratic system. If excluded, they will have every incentive to turn to fundamentalist circles in Iran, Turkey or Arab countries in search of allies.
The United States and EU should convey a couple of stern messages to Aliyev´s administration. First, Washington and Brussels should clearly state that they are as interested in the survival of Azerbaijani secularism. They should also tell Baku in the bluntest terms that imprisoning religious activists on patently trumped-up charges is playing with fire. Such heavy-handed tactics only strengthen radicals and weaken those who are ready to play by democratic rules.
Second, the Azerbaijani government should realize that Iran’s drift in a moderate direction, along with the potential thaw in Tehran’s relations with the West, means that Baku´s depiction of itself as a Western bulwark against "mad mullahs" risks becoming irrelevant. As it is, current developments are making it more difficult to credibly dismiss religious dissidents as Iranian stooges.
Ultimately, what would best serve the long-term interests of both the West and Azerbaijan would be to open up Azerbaijan´s political system, allowing for free expression of various ideas, both secular and religious.
Eldar Mamedov is a political adviser to the Socialists & Democrats Group in the European Parliament. He writes in his personal capacity.