Since the publication of his novella, Stone Dreams, in 2012, writer Akram Aylisli has been subject to an officially-sanctioned harassment campaign. On March 30, 2016, on his way to speak at a literary festival in Italy, he was detained at the airport. Shortly after being detained, Aylisli signed a document compelling him to remain in Baku, thereby subjecting him to a local and international travel ban. He was later charged with hooliganism and resisting the authorities with violence, a charge that carries a penalty of up to three years in prison. He is currently living under de facto house arrest in Baku, Azerbaijan, awaiting possible trial.

In February 2019, PEN America draws attention to the fact that six years ago, in February 2013, Azerbaijani writer Akram Aylisli saw his books burned in public as part of officially condoned harassment campaign against him that continues to the present day. PEN America Member Katherine E. Young went to the Azerbaijani Embassy in Washington, D.C., to remind the world about this shameful campaign against the 81-year-old writer.

Case Background

Akram Aylisli, 81, a playwright, novelist, and translator, was for decades one of the most well-regarded writers in Azerbaijan. His books were taught at schools, and he was awarded the official title of People’s Writer in 1998, as well as two of the highest state awards, the Shokrat and Istiglal medals. From 2005 to 2010, he served as a deputy in Azerbaijan’s national assembly.

Despite this stature, in 2012, following the publication of his book Stone Dreams in Russian, a relentless smear campaign made him persona non grata in Azerbaijan, under the pretext that he should be penalized for “distorting facts in Azerbaijani history and insulting the feelings of the Azerbaijani people.” Part of a trilogy of short novels that all explore the structure of power in Azerbaijan, Stone Dreams tackles the issue of Azerbaijani-Armenian relations and depicts the real-life violence carried out by Azerbaijanis against Armenians living in Baku in 1990. Much of the outrage caused by Stone Dreams is attributed to the sympathetic treatment of Armenians. However, the second book in his trilogy, A Fantastical Traffic Jam, is no less controversial, as the dictator portrayed in the book may have resembled too closely Heydar Aliyev, the father of current president Ilham Aliyev, who is celebrated as the father of modern Azerbaijan.

Although Stone Dreams was never published in Azeri, public rallies were organized against Aylisli. Angered by the critical portrayal of Azerbaijan’s modern history, the ruling party called on Aylisli to withdraw the novel and ask for the nation’s forgiveness. His books were burned, and a politician from a pro-government party offered a US$13,000 reward to anyone who cut off one of his ears. His wife and son were both forced to resign from their jobs. He was branded an apostate and expelled from the Azerbaijani Writers Union. His books were withdrawn from school curricula and Baku’s National Drama Theater canceled a production of Aylisli’s play Don’t Love Me. At the same time, members of the Azerbaijani parliament discussed whether Aylisli should be expelled from Azerbaijan and his citizenship revoked, as well as whether he should undergo a DNA test to see if he was ethnically Armenian. Urging Azeri authorities to cease harassment of the writer, PEN called on the government to act decisively and visibly to guarantee his safely, and to protect the right of all citizens to reflect on, explore, and peacefully debate their history.

In 2016, he was detained at the airport as he was on his way to the Incroci di Civilta festival in Italy. He was accused of creating a public disturbance and assaulting a border official—charges he denies—and eventually charged with hooliganism. Nearly three years later, however, Aylisli has yet to be tried. If convicted, the 81-year-old writer faces up to three years in prison.

PEN International, PEN America, Human Rights Watch, and many other organizations and individuals around the world have called for an end to the harassment of Aylisli. PEN has been actively involved in advocating for the discontinuation of harassment against Aylisli, calling for his protection and condemning his detention at the airport, calling it “a showcase of the government’s continuing quashing of the right to free expression in the central Asian nation.”

Case Updates

November 21, 2018: The first authorized English-language translation of Aylisli’s work, Farewell, Aylis, is published in the U.S. Due to the travel ban, Aylisli has been unable to attend numerous cultural and literary events and to promote his books, including this latest release. 

April 22, 2016: Previous charges on hooliganism are upgraded to resisting the authorities with violence under Article 315.1 of the Criminal Code. This came after he wrote a letter to Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, suggesting that it was absurd that a 78-year-old man could assault a young border control guard, and asking for charges against him to be dropped. According to Aylisli’s lawyer, the alleged incident qualifies as a minor offence and as such, the preliminary investigation should have been concluded within nine months, in line with Article 218.10.2 of Azerbaijan’s Code of Criminal Procedure. Nearly three years later, however, Aylisli has yet to be tried. If convicted, the 81-year-old writer faces up to three years in prison. As part of the investigation, the Prosecutor General’s office confiscated Aylisli’s identity documents, which prevents him from accessing health care services. According to his family, he is in poor health and in need of medical care.

April 6, 2016: Aylisli is charged with hooliganism under Article 221.1 of Azerbaijan’s Criminal Code.

March 30, 2016: Aylisli is detained at the airport on his way to Italy to deliver a speech at the Incroci di Civilta festival in Venice. Accused of creating a public disturbance, hindering the work of border guards, and harassing other passengers, he is transferred into the custody of airport police, where he is interrogated for 10 hours. He is later accused of punching a border police official during a personal search and supposedly causing a hematoma, in a room without surveillance cameras. Shortly after being detained, Aylisli signs a document compelling him to remain in Baku, thereby subjecting him to a local and international travel ban.

February 12, 2013: Harassment and intimidation continues as Aylisli’s books are publicly burned in several cities in Azerbaijan, some of which were organized by the ruling party.

February 7, 2013: Pursuant to demands by some lawmakers that Aylisli be deprived of his special status as a state writer, President Ilham Aliyev strips Aylisli of his state honors and his monthly $1,250 pension, which had been awarded in recognition of his long contribution to literature in Azerbaijan. He is also expelled from the Union of Azerbaijani Writers.

February 5, 2013: Similar to his son, Aylisli’s wife Galina Alexandrovna is forced to sign a “voluntary” statement resigning from her job at a public library, following an inspection announced several days before.

February 4, 2013: Najaf Naibov-Aylisli, Aylisli’s son, is forced by a senior officer at Azerbaijan’s customs agency to sign a statement documenting his “voluntary” resignation from his job as the department chief.

January 29, 2013: Following the publication of Stone Dreams, which challenges the official narrative of history and relations with Armenia, the rhetoric against Aylisli begins as officials from Azerbaijan’s ruling party publicly call on Aylisli to withdraw the novel and ask for the nation’s forgiveness.

Free Expression In Azerbaijan

The authoritarian family ruling Azerbaijan has little toleration for open and robust public debate critical of the government, as critical speech is subject to harsh penalties, access to independent media websites are blocked, and many journalists and activists are imprisoned. Many writers and journalists face death threats, surveillance, politically-motivated arrests on spurious charges, extended pre-trial detentions, and custodial sentences. Azerbaijani authorities often impose travel bans, charges of drugs or firearms possession, “hooliganism” or tax evasion to arrest and imprison writers and journalists to curb dissenting opinions or critical voices. Furthermore, the ruling family and political elite use defamation lawsuits, as well as other trumped-up legal and administrative charges, as tools to silence and punish journalists. Recently the government expanded the scope of criminal defamation and amended martial law to expand permissible information controls. Moreover, media outlets, journalists and activists are unlikely to receive a fair trial, which raises further concerns over the state of free speech in Azerbaijan. Aylisli’s case is one of the many cases in which many writers and journalists are harassed and faced with politically motivated charges, such that that of Khadija Ismayilova, the winner of the 2015 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award.

In Their Words

“Let some in my motherland think I’m not a writer: so be it. I don’t need honor or glory in a country where they burn books and a killer with an ax is elevated to the rank of hero.”

Where They Burn Books: A Writer Pays the Price for Honesty By Akram Aylisli, Katherine E. Young

In an interview with Index on Censorship, published in March 24, 2016, indicating that he still faces public persecution in Azerbaijan, Aylisli said, “Officials whom I have known for years are still frightened to say hello to me. I am automatically banished from everything under the control of the state.”