For more than a decade, Azerbaijani students engaged in activism have reportedly been detained, blackmailed and barred from higher education for anything from demanding education improvements to to the “insult” of former presidents.
Ulvi Hasanli, an activist since 2005, was expelled from his university in 2007 for leading the Dalga Youth Movement’s campaign against corruption in Azerbaijani universities.
“At that time, one of the most serious problems in Azerbaijan was corruption in universities,” Hasanli said. OC Media. “My friends and I interviewed teachers who took bribes.”
“After collecting the results of the investigation, we held a press conference to announce the names of the teachers who were accepting bribes, and called on law enforcement to take action against those who have done it. As a result of these investigations, I was expelled”.
Hasanli, who was 19 at the time, was a second-year student at Azerbaijan State University of Petroleum and Industry. Although he repeatedly appealed to the administration and relevant agencies, he was only disappointed.
“The university wouldn’t give me a formal decision on my dismissal, and they dragged out the process as long as possible. They were waiting for my appeal to expire so that I could not start any legal proceedings”.
Hasanli was eventually admitted to Tourism University, only to once again face the threat of dismissal for his participation in the 2011 anti-government protests.
“They also wanted to expel me from this university, but when the academic council discussed the issue, some teachers defended me saying that it would be a shame if I was expelled again,” Hasanli said. “As a result, I was not expelled from the university, but all the classes I was taking this semester were cancelled.”
“The dean of the university threw an ashtray at my head,” says the activist.
Although Hasanli has borne the brunt of the pressure from the state, her family has not been free from harassment.
“The Ganja district executive wanted to expel my mother and my sister from the music school where they worked. Because of my activism, my sister was fired,” Hasanli said. “My mother was not affected because she had worked as a piano teacher at this school for 30 years. However, the police repeatedly escorted my mother to the main Ganja police department and detained her there for hours, pressuring her about my activities”.
Empowering Azerbaijani students
With university students at the forefront, the Student Power Center (SPC), an NGO, seeks to protect the rights of Azerbaijani students through awareness campaigns and by encouraging students to engage in socio-political activities.
Farid Imanov, president of the CPS, said members of his organization often face pressure from the government.
“Some of us have been offered bribes by the university in return for keeping quiet, some have been blackmailed, some have been threatened and some parents have been repeatedly guest to university to talk about their children.
Imanov said the severity of pressure on students varies by university.
“At Azerbaijan State University of Economics, students are welcome to meet and talk with the administration. On the other hand, Lankaran State University is more despotic – in 2020, a student by the name of Nariman Abdulla was expelled from the university for actively participating in a parliamentary election campaign”.
speaking to OC Mediathe Ministry of Education denied that universities persecute students for their social activism and instead accused students of lying and “not wanting to study”.
OC Media attempted to contact both universities for comment, but neither institution responded.
The consequences of a change request
Amal Ata was a third-year student at the University of Tourism and Management in 2014 when he was also expelled for preparing a petition demanding improvements in teaching programs and facilities.
These improvements included the installation of projectors, the purchase of new whiteboards, the modification of the limit of absence and the appointment of security guards at the entrance of the university.
“At that time, the university administration started to hate me, because the petition was covered by the media. The issue caused a stir on social media, so employees from the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of National Security came to the university to look for me.
“The reason was to prevent the students from revolting,” Ata said. “As a result of the campaign, the administration purchased new whiteboards and projectors and increased the absence limit.”
Despite the success of his campaign, Ata was still summoned by his university’s dean and removed from his post.
“Officially, I was expelled for causing trouble with the administration and teachers and violating classes,” Ata said. “But the reason for my dismissal ended up being a meme I shared on Facebook about the [former] Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev’.
“My family and I have been trying to get my student status back for four years, but the university still refuses to do so.”
The future of student activism
More than a decade after beginning his fight against corruption in universities, Hasanli seems uninspired by the current state of Azerbaijani student activism.
“Student activity is very low today,” he says. “Students don’t seem interested in protecting their rights.”
Dalga Youth Movement, the organization with which Hasanli began his activism, is no longer active.
But Imanov remains optimistic, despite the “very serious obstacles” and pressure facing student activists.
CPS plans for the coming year focus on new strategies – social media campaigns delivering its message to students and amplifying the voice of Azerbaijani youth, organizing training for students on their rights and working with d other civil society organizations to empower students.
Imanov hopes that these new approaches will allow the voice of the CPS “to reach the students, and the voice of the students to reach us.”
Given the record of the past decade, it seems likely that the authorities will do all they can to discourage these voices from speaking out.