Death by fire: Extreme acts of protest in Azerbaijan

Author: Gular Mehdizade
Edition: Protest
Collages by Chichek Bayramli

Zaur Hasanov was 42 when he lit himself on fire in front of a government building in the Azerbaijani capital Baku.

His 2013 death triggered a public outcry. There were calls for protests. President Ilham Aliyev reportedly ordered his government to "provide treatment and assistance to the disabled in the war" in response.

But data suggests that suicide is becoming more common in Azerbaijan and is not limited to war veterans. The uptick in cases of self-immolation, the most extreme form of suicide, highlights society's growing sense of helplessness, warn sociologists, psychologists and political scientists in Azerbaijan.

Hasanov lit himself on fire in front of his children on December 25, 2013 after years of futile attempts at justice. The Nagorno-Karabakh war veteran had struggled for over two decades to receive compensation after his restaurant was demolished in 1995.

The death of Hasanov was followed by the string of acts of self-immolation in Azerbaijan, many of them resulting in death.

In 2014 a couple from a nearby city of Sumgayit committed an act of self-immolation in front of the presidential administration in Baku. The couple was reportedly protesting the demolition of their house despite an existing court order to stop the demolition.

In 2015, Arzuman Humbatov, 39, a bus driver in Baku was hospitalized after pouring gasoline on himself and setting himself on fire. He said he was protesting against misconduct by Transportation Ministry inspectors.

Ramiz Manafov set himself on fire in front of Bank Respublika in 2017, allegedly due to debts to the bank.

The self-immolation attempts coincide with a general increase in suicides in Azerbaijan. About 3,000 people have committed suicide in Azerbaijan over the past five years, according to Deputy Minister of Labor and Social Protection Anar Karimov. While the number is lower than in neighboring countries, suicide attempts were up fourfold between the years of 2008 and 2016.

Psychologist Aysel Iskenderli believes most suicide attempts reflect people feeling overwhelmed by social and economic problems.

“There is a psychological explosion when new problems are being added to the problems that people already experience. The form of suicide, however, indicates deeper problems. For example, self-immolation: It is the hardest, the worst, and the most spectacular type of suicide," she says.

Sociologist Rufat Garagoz sees the trend as a reflection of deeper problems in society.

I see that there are young people among those who committed suicide. It's just helplessness. It is also the end of desperation. This shows that there is a big problem in our society. In our society, there is a problem of justice," he says.

"Normal societies take care of this. They prevent such cases or at least try to reduce it. Schools and courts should eliminate injustice. But hundreds of people even complain about courts in Azerbaijan…We cannot find justice, so the weakest, most impatient, helpless people are unable to endure the situation. Psychology, their defense systems are broken. So they are protesting in the most demonstrable way. The root of the problem is deep. Suicide rates generally indicate that the level of injustice in our country is very high."

The Azerbaijani government has taken some steps: in November, the health ministry announced it was working with UNDP to create the country's first National Plan against suicide.

Families of self-immolation victims believe more should be done. Nurida Mammadova set herself on fire in front of her two children when she was 32. Her aunt, Pari Huseynova, recalls her niece struggling to get help dealing with her husband and in-laws.

Nurida had tried to get a divorce, but was under constant pressure from her husband and his family.

“When families cannot get along, their divorce is not accepted as a natural way out. If they had divorced in time, the girl would not have faced this fate. They said so many bad things to Nurida because she filed for divorce. In the end, they [in-laws] spread rumours about her. They said that a woman appealing to the court cannot be normal. A good bride does not sue her husband,” Huseynova says.

At one point, Nurida couldn't stand the pressure anymore and lit herself on fire.

Political scientist Zardusht Alizade believes people like Nurida are being driven to suicide because there is no one left in the country to defend their rights.

“Another face of suicide is terror. In fact, suicide is a terror used by a helpless individual against his own self and part of society,” he says.

“As a result of government pressure, there are few civil society defenders left; also public ignorance is so widespread that many people do not think of struggling for their rights. The regime has closed the peaceful and legitimate way for people to fight for their rights.”

Despite Huseynova's efforts, Nurida's husband and in-laws were never held responsible
for the repercussions of their abuse. A criminal investigation was opened, but never resulted in formal charges. Meanwhile, Nurida’s children—who are now 14 and 22—have not been able to return to the house they shared with their mother.

"Nurida was forced to burn herself. It didn’t happen for no reason. We wrote to the Ombudsman, the Presidential Administration, and [First Lady and Vice President] Mehriban Aliyeva for a while. When the letters had no effect, we gave up," she says. "Now we can only remember. We are reduced to just remembering our sweet baby."

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