Alizamin Salayev has been on hunger strike in jail for two months. A member of the opposition Popular Front Party, he was arrested in February for "hooliganism" and placed in pre-trial detention for three months. He faces five years in prison if convicted.
Salayev started his hunger strike to demand freedom, as well as to protest having been denied family visits and medical checkups. As of April 6, the 59th day of the strike, he is unable to walk and speak and has lost nearly 40 kilograms, his lawyer Nemat Karimli told Eurasianet. Salayev vows to continue rejecting food.
This isn't Salayev's first time in jail. He was sentenced to over two years in April 2020 on charges of libel and assault on a police officer. He was amnestied and released early in January 2022.
His hunger strike has garnered little media attention or public discussion. And his party has limited room for maneuver in the politically restrictive environment under President Ilham Aliyev, whose family dynasty has ruled Azerbaijan since 1993. One protest held by the Popular Front on March 30 was dispersed quickly, while two party members were detained, one for a month and another for 25 days; a reporter filming the scene was also detained for 15 days.
The head of the Popular Front, Ali Karimli, complained of the lack of interest in Salayev's case. "The indifferent attitude of society to the destruction of Alizamin Salayev is totally incomprehensible," he wrote on Facebook on April 6. "Everything is clear with the regime. They act out of grudge, arrogance and revenge. They are not only cruel, but also irresponsible. They do not understand what serious consequences the killing of Alizamin in prison can have for the country."
Quite a few jailed oppositionists have resorted to this desperate measure over the country's three decades of independence. On a few occasions it has borne fruit, as those on strike managed to eventually win their freedom.
The most well-publicized recent example was of the case of another Popular Front member, Saleh Rustamli, who went on hunger strike in prison for 42 days in November-December 2021. He stopped after he was promised release by authorities and freed in May 2022 after receiving a presidential pardon. While he was on hunger strike, several protests were held in his support, and the U.S. State Department, the Helsinki Commission, as well as international human rights organizations urged the government to free Rustamli.
Another, earlier, hunger strike, which perhaps attracted even more support, was that of longtime opposition leader Tofig Yagublu, who was released into house arrest after 17 days on hunger strike in September 2020. Even pro-government MPs supported Yagublu's freedom at the time.
The most recent hunger strikes, however, have not delivered results. Yagublu again went on hunger strike in early January this year, after he was arrested for a month following his participation in a rally. He was already in frail health from his previous hunger strikes, and his family warned that he could die this time. Fellow opposition figures went on hunger strike in his support, but Yagublu was released only when his one-month term of detention ended (at which point he quit his hunger strike).
Another prominent jailed activist, Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, who was arrested in December, went on hunger strike twice during his detention. His second one lasted 51 days. (The end of his hunger strike coincided with, but was apparently not related to, a leak of intimate images and conversations of him with a number of women, in a move supporters said was aimed at discrediting him.) Hajiyev is still in detention.
But another recent case ended in death. Last month, Sabuhi Salimov, a religious activist convicted of treason, died of a heart attack in a courtroom after a 53-day hunger strike. Few people outside Azerbaijan's Islamist circles had even heard of his hunger strike until it took his life.
Najmin Kamilsoy, co-founder and analyst at the Baku-based Agora Analytic Collective, sees hunger strikes as a "pressure element to demand restoration of justice" rather than a tool for freedom. "Other elements also play a role, including the prisoner's prominence among the public, and pressures from local and international community," he told Eurasianet.
"In general, the authorities keep those who go on hunger strike under their watch and intervene only when their health has deteriorated to the point of death. This intervention isn't always to free them but sometimes forcing them to digest food."
It's not clear if any intervention will be made in Salayev's ongoing case. But there is little hope among the country's embattled civil society.
"Alizamin Salayev, forgive us! We are hopeless, we can't do anything, it's either difficult, or we aren't able to help," director of the local human rights group Defense Line, Rufat Safarov, wrote.