In July of 2009, two activist, opposition bloggers, Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli, were sitting in a restaurant with friends discussing politics in Azerbaijan, an oil-rich nation of about 10 million situated between western Asia and eastern Europe. During their discussion, a stranger approached and struck Milli while another assailant arrived and joined in on the fracas.Once the episode was over, Hajizade and Milli went to the police station to report the event, which had resulted in a broken nose for Hajizade. Instead of police opening an investigation to find the two assailants responsible, Hajizade and Milli were detained, charged with hooliganism, and later, minor physical assault, according to Reporters Without Borders.
Now, Hajizade is retelling this story, and his ensuing 17 month long imprisonment, to thousands of readers with a Reddit IAMA which swiftly rose to the top of the popular social news site.
Here are some of the key points from his story (Note: Light editing for clarity and space limitations have been made).
Hajizade explains his background and the episode that got him started on this long, arduous, and testing journey:
I was born in Baku, Azerbaijan in a family of a political activist. In 12th grade I spent a year in an American High School in Federal Way, WA. I graduated from the University of Richmond, VA with a BA in Political Science. I interned in the Voice of America radio station in DC. I went to law school in Azerbaijan, graduated in 2007 and was conscripted to the Azerbaijani Army.
In 2009, I posted a video that mocked the ridiculous overspending (purchasing donkeys from Germany at USD 40,000 each) by the Government of Azerbaijan. Two weeks later, my friend and I were attacked and severely beaten up by government hired thugs while dining in one of the local cafes. We went and complained about the event to the Police. Eventually the thugs were let go, my friend and I were arrested on trumped up charges of hooliganism and causing minor bodily harm.
Presented before a judge in court, a sham trial found them guilty as charged. They were subsequently imprisoned for 17 months.
I demanded a lawyer 3 times but was denied the possibility. I was tied and beaten up. Eventually they made my written complaint “disappear” and arrested me. My lawyer came the next day, but it was too late. None of my witnesses were questioned, police lied, the workers from the restaurant were forced to testify against me, we had photos that proved that police were lying but the court dismissed them.
Hajizade and Milli were jailed, and for a while, were kept apart from the other prisoners, held in what’s known as solitary confinement.
During the first 2 months of imprisonment, I spent it in solitary confinement [….] Sometimes, you go crazy by realising that you haven’t heard a sound since morning. So you start singing to yourself just to fill the void….The first week I almost went insane, the second week they brought a radio, and after that it was much better. That and some books, you can go on for a while…. The next five [months] I spent in a two person cell with bunk beds. This happened in a detention centre (in USA this is called a Jail). After that I was moved to a correctional facility (a prison).
He proceeds to explain the conditions within the prison.
The facility was surrounded by 3 stone quarries, so the whole day huge machines would be cutting through the rock making a horrible noise akin to the one on horror films. The byproduct of stone cutting is white dust, and with a little wind the dust was up in the air, in our food, eyes, ears, beds etc. You would wake up and your face will be covered in dust. This led to a lot of TB cases among inmates. We slept in barracks; my particular one had 100 people staying in a one big room, with bunk beds lined up next to each other very closely.
Food was inedible, made from old and spoiled products. When you ate the rice or some other porridge you could break your tooth on stone that was in your plate. The soup tasted like there was meat in it somewhere, but it was nowhere to be found. You could rarely find a chicken skin in the soup etc. I received food and ingredients from home, and cooked for myself. If I didn’t, I would die…
There were regular outages with water. No heating, ventilation or AC in the buildings. During the hottest days of July I couldn’t sleep for a week, because the moment I would go to sleep my body temperature would rise, my face would sweat and the sweat burned my face so I would wake up.
Finally, after 17 months, Hajizade was released on parole, earlier than expected because of good behaviour and because of mounting international pressure from NGOs, various embassies, and the likes of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. He told Reddit that he plans to stay on in the country, even with the threat that the country presents to him.
Looking back on what he has endured, and where he is now, he shows little signs of regret while offering this retrospective, concluding thought..
If I had to do this all over again, I would spend more time on making more videos, so when I am jailed, I won’t be sorry for all the time that I have lost […] I hope that the jail time did not change me, however it is hard for me to tell. Most probably I became more cautious. I am always worried.
Sadly, while Hajizade’s story is shocking, it isn’t unique. The international NGO Human Rights Watch reports that in 2011, more than 50 journalists and activists were harassed or attacked, with multiple abductions, threats, and even a case where an activist’s arm was broken during an attack by men whom sound eerily similar to the “thugs” Hajizade mentions.
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