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Unfriendly Fire

A soldier’s suspicious death spurs public anger in Azerbaijan, and brings grieving parents into the streets.

by Shahla Sultanova 28 January 2013

BAKU | He was the only one left. The protest was ending. A few police milled about, maintaining discipline; a few activists happily discussed the day's high points; the journalists packed up their stuff to go. But the old man was still there, sitting on a bench, holding a portrait of a young man in military uniform.

 

The quiet, lone protest got the attention of passersby, some of whom stopped and asked: Who’s the young man? My son, the man explained, killed during his army service.

 

When photographers also started paying attention, the police swung by. They asked the old man to follow an officer who appeared to be in charge. Beyali Azizov disappeared from Baku's Fountain Square still holding the picture of his son, Elkhan, who died during his army service in January 2010.

 

Protest in Baku 2013Parents and relatives of soldiers who have died while on military duty show photos of their loved ones during a 12 January protest in Baku.

 

Not far away, a man in his late 40s was stopping people with cameras, assuming them to be reporters. He introduced himself as Telman Safarov. Under his coat was a portrait of his son, Nurlan, who died on duty in 2011, a reported suicide. Safarov said he was afraid that if he showed the picture openly it would be confiscated by the undercover police who are a well-known presence at Baku demonstrations.

 

Many more parents with similar stories were among the protesters who marched to Fountain Square on 12 January to call attention to an issue that has only recently bubbled into open public discussion: the deaths in recent years of hundreds of Azerbaijani soldiers off the battlefield.

 

According to the Doktrina Center in Baku, a military-research resource for journalists, 647 members of the Azerbaijani army died from 2003 through 2012, 472 of them in non-combat situations. Most have remained anonymous, or, if covered by the media – as were Elkhan Azizov and Nurlan Safarov – faded quickly from the headlines.

 

That changed with the death on 7 January of Ceyhun Qubatov, an 18-year-old soldier, at the Shamkir army post in western Azerbaijan. His mother, Samira Qubatova, was told the cause was heart failure. But pictures of his body taken by family members showed signs of physical injuries.

 

The photographs, uploaded to the Internet by Qubatov’s family, spread quickly via social media, then were picked up by traditional media. That spurred unusually quick official action. The Military Prosecutor's Office opened a criminal investigation. On 10 January, Lt. Gen. Rovshan Akberov, the commander at Shamkir, was reprimanded by order of the defense minister. The head of Qubatov’s unit was demoted, and other ranking officers were relieved of their posts. (The government has not given details on why specifically the officers were disciplined, only that it was related to the young soldier’s death.)

 

The reprimands have not quelled public anger. In the wake of the Qubatov case, past military deaths received renewed media attention, and Facebook was flooded with photos of soldiers, first smiling in their uniforms, then dead with apparent injuries on their bodies. Grieving parents’ videos were shared online, and anger spread far beyond typical opposition sites.

 

The 12 January protest, organized on Facebook, drew several thousand people to Fountain Square to demand the government be held accountable for the rash of non-combat deaths and the seeming abuse of conscripts. Twenty-two people were arrested for staging the unauthorized demonstration and fined 300 to 600 manats ($382 to $764) each.

 

‘SERVING IS LIKE TORTURE’

 

According to the Azerbaijani Military Prosecutor's Office, overall crime within army ranks declined in 2012, with deaths down 2.3 percent, the Trend news agency reported 25 January. However, incidents of hazing among servicemen and assaults with weapons rose last year, prosecutors said.

 

The Doktrina Center lists 97 deaths in the ranks in 2012, 77 of them in non-combat circumstances. Suicide ranked first among the officially registered causes of death.

 

Jasur Sumerinli, the center’s director, links the toll to Azerbaijan’s military buildup, which has seen spending on the armed forces increase more than 20-fold since 2003.

 

“The bigger military spending gets, the higher the number of non-battle fatalities in the Azerbaijani army,” he said. “Suicides, careless use of weapons or [soldiers] using weapons to shoot each other, and death by illness are at the top in our statistics. The suicides and shootings occur because the moral and psychological conditions in the army are intense.”

 

The spending spree has gone primarily into boosting weapons stocks. In the past decade Azerbaijan has bought missiles, missile launchers, combat aircraft, tanks, rocket launchers, aerial drones, and other heavy equipment from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, South Africa, Turkey, and Israel. The country is also beefing up internal production, establishing a Ministry of Defense Industry in 2006. President Ilham Aliev and military officials openly link the arms buildup to the unresolved dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which nominally belongs to Azerbaijan but has been an Armenian protectorate in all but name since its ethnic Armenian population fought to secede in the early 1990s. Minor skirmishes, sometimes fatal, occur frequently on the heavily militarized front line.

 

While Aliev frequently boasts in speeches of having the strongest military in the South Caucasus, Sumerinli said the army has invested relatively little in its human resources and is failing to root out corruption or properly investigate deaths in the barracks.

 

“Soldiers are assigned to clean, cook, be drivers, and do many other non-military tasks which should be done by specially recruited employees,” he said. “Serving in the army is like torture for many young people. Who is going to manage that modern and expensive technology if, with all these problems, they cannot shape an emotionally and physically healthy and well-trained army?”

 

Some recent veterans echo Sumerinli’s assessment. Bahram Ahmedli did his military service from July 2011 to July 2012. Most of the time, he said, he worked in his unit’s canteen, did construction, or loaded cargo. He received one hour a day of combat, weapons, or technological training. Mistreatment of soldiers devastated morale in his unit, he said, and many of his peers were not physically ready for hard labor; some had difficulty even carrying their Kalashnikovs.

 

(The same day that Ceyhun Qubatov died, a soldier serving in the northwestern Gazakh region was severely wounded due to a fellow soldier’s mishandling of his rifle.)

 

“I served on the front line in Nakhchivan,” near the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, Ahmedli said. “The butts of many soldiers’ Kalashnikovs touched their knees when they carried them. Most were from poor families. The reality in Azerbaijan is that parents give bribes to keep their children from the front line. It seemed like most of the men in my unit were those who could not pay the money. Some were untouchable, never given hard work, because they had paid. Seeing all this unfairness, I was unhappy all the time, and I was never motivated by my commanding officers.”

 

Farid Ibrahimov also did his army stint from the summer of 2011 to the summer of 2012. Allowed to delay conscription until he graduated from college, he was older than most soldiers and thus, he said, was less affected by the pressures of military life. But he saw how hard it was for younger men.

 

“Soldiers are homesick anyway. Plus, the hard work exhausts them. They get pressure from the older soldiers and the officers can make their life hell,” Ibrahimov said. “Pressure from officers is tolerable, since they have authority. What most soldiers can’t take is when other soldiers treat them like an object of fun. That’s what leads to most of the suicides.”

 

In a 15 January speech, Aliev said professionalism and discipline matter as much as weapons and logistics in building the Azerbaijani military. “The army is part of our society. The citizens serving in the army are part of our society,” he said.

 

“As in any other field, there may be errors and shortcomings in the army. But the most important thing is that these mistakes and shortcomings be identified in a timely manner,” he said. The government was “taking serious measures to do that,” and would continue to implement policies aimed at “bolstering professionalism and discipline,” he added.

 

DEATHS AND DOUBTS

 

Beyali Azizov and Telman Safarov are looking to the government for more than just reforms; they want answers. Both are deeply suspicious of the official accounts of their sons’ deaths.

 

After investigating Elkhan Azizov’s death, the General Prosecutor's Office ruled that he and another soldier, Sadiq Mammadov, shot four officers and wounded two others in an explosive outburst against corruption and beating of troops in their unit, then shot each other. Following the incident, five people, including a major who was wounded in the shooting, were convicted of abuse of power and other offenses and received sentences of from 18 months to 12 years in prison.

 

Beyali Azizov does not believe his son killed anyone. “There were signs of beatings on both my son’s body and Sadiq Mammadov’s,” he said. “It was officially reported that the incident happened between 3 and 4 a.m., but my son talked to his cousin at 5 that morning. There are a lot of questions about the case. How did two soldiers kill each other?”

 

Someone else “killed those officers and then my son,” Azizov insisted, “and they blamed him.”

 

Protest in Baku 2013Beyali Azizov holds a portrait of his son, Elkhan, who died at his base in January 2010. Authorities say Elkhan and another soldier took their own lives after killing four officers, but Azizoz questions this account.

 

Telman Safarov’s doubts stem from a mystery about his son’s whereabouts in his final days. Two days before Nurlan’s death, he received a call from another soldier urging him to contact his son; he tried but was unable to reach Nurlan. Later, the unit’s commander called and said Nurlan had gone missing from his unit. The next thing Safarov heard was that his son had returned, unobserved, and taken his own life.

 

“A military unit is not a place you can easily leave and return. How come no one saw him?” Safarov said. “I do not believe my son committed suicide. He was killed, and hung later. I want this case to be investigated.” He said he has written to the president, the first lady, and most cabinet ministries seeking to have the case re-opened, but has heard “no news yet.”

 

Beyali Azizov is also planning to contact the government. His portrait of Elkhan, the one he carried to the 12 January protest, was taken by plainclothes police after he was escorted from Fountain Square. As of 27 January, it had not been returned.

Story and photos by Shahla Sultanova, a freelance journalist in Baku.

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