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Query response on Azerbaijan: Information about the Talysh community (rights and treatment) [a-10174]

Query response on Azerbaijan: Information about the Talysh community (rights and treatment) [a-10174]

16 May 2017

https://www.ecoi.net/en/document/1399964.html

This response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to ACCORD as well as information provided by experts within time constraints and in accordance with ACCORD’s methodological standards and the Common EU Guidelines for processing Country of Origin Information (COI).

This response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status, asylum or other form of international protection.

Please read in full all documents referred to.

Non-English language information is summarised in English. Original language quotations are provided for reference.

 

The CIA World Fact Book mentions the Talysh as an ethnic group comprising 1.3 per cent of the population in Azerbaijan (CIA, last updated 12 January 2017). The Jamestown Foundation describes the Talysh in a February 2015 article as speakers of an Iranian dialect who follow Shiism and number approximately 100,000 in Azerbaijan (Jamestown Foundation, 3 February 2015). The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) writes in its Alternative Report to CEDAW in 2015 that “the Talysh community is predominantly located in the South of Azerbaijan, as well as the Northwest of Iran” and puts the total number of Talysh in Azerbaijan and Iran at approximately 540,000 (according to an official census). UNPO adds that the minority group itself claims the total number to be 1 million persons (UNPO, 2015, p. 4). According to an April 2017 article published by Meydan TV, the 2009 population census indicates that around 112,000 Talysh live in Azerbaijan, “though many Talysh do not agree with the numbers and assert that there are many more of them”. The same article notes that the Talysh in Azerbaijan are “largely concentrated in Lankaran, Astara, Masally, Lerik, and Bilasuvar Districts” (Meydan TV, 18 April 2017).

 

In an article published in April 2015 in the online magazine Muftah which focusses on analysis on the Middle East and among others, Central Asia, the Talysh are described as follows:

“The Talysh of Azerbaijan are concentrated along the Iranian border, with their capital in Lenkaran. During the Soviet era, particularly under Joseph Stalin, the Talysh suffered repression. Their culture and language were suppressed, and they did not receive formal state recognition as a nationality, including in USSR censuses. To this day, the Talysh dispute official figures about the size of their community. According to results from the 2009 national census in Azerbaijan, the Talysh population is about 112,000 (less than 2 percent of the population), but Talysh leaders say their community is as large as 500,000 people. (Muftah, 6 April 2015)

The US Department of State (USDOS) mentions the Talysh in its Country Report on Human Rights Practices covering the year 2016:

“Some groups reported sporadic incidents of discrimination, restrictions on their ability to teach in their native languages, and harassment by local authorities. These groups included Talysh in the south, Lezghi in the north, and Meskhetians and Kurds.” (USDOS, 3 March 2017, section 6)

The 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Azerbaijan stipulates that the Azerbaijani language is the official language of the country and that the Azerbaijan Republic “ensures free use and development of other languages spoken by the people” (Constitution of the Republic of Azerbaijan, 12 November 1995, Article 21). Article 25 of the Constitution states that “[t]he state guarantees equality of rights and liberties of everyone irrespective of race, nationality, religion, language [...]” and that “[r]ights and liberties of a person, citizen cannot be restricted due to race, nationality, religion, language [...].” It adds that “[n]o one may be harmed, granted allowances or privileges, or deprived from granting allowances and privileges” on the basis of the abovementioned grounds. (Constitution of the Republic of Azerbaijan, 12 November 1995, Article 25). Article 45 of the Constitution stipulates that “[e]veryone has the right to use his/her mother tongue”, that “[e]veryone has the right to be educated, carry out creative activity in any language, as desired” and that “[n]obody may be deprived of right to use his/her mother tongue” (Constitution of the Republic of Azerbaijan, 12 November 1995, Article 45).

 

Minority Rights Group International (MRGI)), an international human rights organisation working to promote the rights of ethnic, national, religious and linguistic minorities and indigenous peoples, writes in an undated article with regard to ethnic minority protection:

“Ethnic minority protection first became the subject of Azerbaijani legislation in 1992, when a presidential decree on the Protection of the Rights and Freedoms and on State support for the Promotion of the Languages and Cultures of National Minorities, Numerically small Peoples and Ethnic Groups living in the Republic of Azerbaijan was issued. Implementation of this decree was stalled by the conflict in Karabakh, which further contributed to a unitary vision of Azerbaijani statehood inhospitable to the granting of wide-ranging rights to minorities perceived as sources of further separatism. Continuing this trend, the Aliyev regime has consistently promoted a civic vision of Azerbaijani nationhood, which has obliquely promoted the interests of the titular Azerbaijani nation and remained vague in its provisions for ethnic minorities.

In pursuit of the goal of promoting the state language, a Law on the State Language was adopted in 2002, which contains certain regrettable reductions in the legal guarantees for the protection of national minorities. These put at risk certain practices in the field of electronic media. Although the constitution provides for the right to maintain minority culture and language, authorities have restricted minorities’ effort to teach, or print materials in, their native languages. Farsi-speaking Talysh in the south of the country, Caucasian Lezgins in the north, displaced Meskhetian Turks from Central Asia, and displaced Kurds from the Armenian-occupied Lachin region have all experienced discrimination, restrictions on the ability to teach in their first languages, and harassment by local authorities.” (MRGI, undated (a))

The MRGI describes the historical context of the Talysh people in Azerbaijan in another undated article:

“The Talysh have suffered as a result of the long-term deprivation of cultural and education rights and from the effects of economic neglect of their region, situated in south-east Azerbaijan and bordering Iran and the Caspian Sea.

Azeri fears of the emergence of pro-Iranian separatist sentiments led to the formation of the Azerbaijan Talysh National Party in 1992. In June 1993, as part of the general political unrest resulting from the campaign against the then President, Abulfaz Elchibey, and recent defeats on the battlefield in the Karabakh conflict, Ali Akhram Hummatov declared the formation of the Talysh-Mugansk Republic. The republic was short-lived, however, lasting only until August. With the accession of Heydar Aliyev to power in Baku, the Azerbaijani centre reasserted itself and Hummatov was arrested. Initially sentenced to death, he was then given a life sentence. Hummatov was released in 2004 as a result of pressure from the Council of Europe. The Talysh National Movement continued its activities, although within the framework of a unitary Azerbaijani state.” (MRGI, Talysh, undated (b))

The April 2015 article in the online magazine Muftah refers to the use of the Talysh language, referring to the exiled leader of the former separatist movement “Talysh-Mughan Autonomous Republic”, Alikram Hummatov:

“The decline of the Talysh language is a primary concern for many of these nationalist leaders. In 2013, Hummatov, made a guest appearance at Yerevan State University for an event about the preservation of the Talysh language. During his speech, Hummatov said, ‘In Azerbaijan, the Talysh are deprived of basic rights. We are not respected; we are being extirpated, with a policy of assimilation being implemented against us.’

Some of Hummatov’s concerns are warranted. For example, lowland communities that were once homogenous and are now becoming multi-ethnic. Azerbaijani – a language very similar to Turkish – is being increasingly used. Among Talysh children, proficiency in their mother tongue is reportedly declining, except in remote, mountain villages.”(Muftah, 6 April 2015)

In April 2017, Meydan TV, a Berlin-based exile media website, published an article on the Talysh in Azerbaijan reporting on demands of education in their native language and cultural autonomy:

“Since the moment the Soviet Union collapsed, the Talysh have been demanding education in their native language and cultural autonomy, making appeals to the international rights of ethnic minorities. Vagif [a resident of the village of Veravul in Lankaran District] complains that the country’s government is ignoring these demands. And sometimes the government insults not only the deep Shiite faith of the Talysh, but even the word ‘Talysh’ itself. ‘We can’t learn in our own language. It’s reached the point that they come around and force us to change the names of restaurants or markets that include the word ‘Talysh’ or ‘Lankaran’. We are Shiite Muslims and we greatly revere our saints. But we are not allowed to perform certain ceremonies that involve paying respect to our saints on particular days. It’s very strange. Why can my child study English, French, German, and Russian at school, but they don’t let him study his native language’, says Vagif.

[...] The Talysh have always actively participated in all branches of life in Azerbaijan. Despite the many years of assimilation of other peoples of Azerbaijan, the Talysh have nevertheless retained their language and lifeways, and unceasingly fight for cultural autonomy and the right to education in their native language. Those who are not satisfied with complaints and actively fight for cultural autonomy, the right to education, and the right to print in their native tongue, are punished with arrests and pressure from the government.” (Meydan TV, 18 April 2017)

In its January 2015 report Freedom in the World on Nagorno-Karabakh, Freedom House mentions the radio station Voice of Talyshtan which broadcasts programmes in Talysh language from Nagorno-Karabakh into Azerbaijan:

“The Voice of Talyshistan, a radio station launched in 2013 by the Yerevan State University and an Armenian nongovernmental organization (NGO), continued broadcasting in 2014. The station broadcasts programs in Talysh, an Iranian language, from Nagorno-Karabakh into southeastern Azerbaijan, home to the country’s minority Talysh population. Some Azerbaijani officials called the station a ‘provocation’ meant to promote anti-Azerbaijani sentiments.” (Freedom House, 28 January 2015)

The April 2015 article in the online magazine Muftah also refers to the radio station Voice of Talyshtan:

In 2013, a Talysh-language radio station, ‘The Voice of Talyshstan,’ was launched in Nagorno-Karabakh. The move was criticized by Baku as an attempt by the Armenian government to stir up ethnic conflict between the Talysh and Azeris. The station began broadcasting on March 20 of that year with support from the Armenian Caucasus Center of Iranian Studies at the Modus Vivendi Center, which is based in Yerevan. The station was founded by Garnik Asatrian, an Armenian intellectual who also established the Talysh Studies program at Yerevan State University. At the time, Asatrian denied accusations of ulterior motives behind Armenia’s interest in Talysh minorities, and insisted the center was merely broadening its focus on Iranian studies.” (Muftah, 6 April 2015)

The same Muftah article elaborates on Russia’s and Armenia’s influence and interests with regard to the Talysh minority in Azerbaijan:

“The Talysh rose to international prominence in 1993. At the time, and amidst the chaos of a post-Soviet political transition, Russia backed a separatist movement called the ‘Talysh-Mughan Autonomous Republic,’ led by Alikram Hummatov. The pseudo-state was dissolved after just three months when Heydar Aliyev, the former communist leader of Soviet Azerbaijan, consolidated his power and became Azerbaijan’s first president. Upon his death on October 31, 2003, his son, Ilham Aliyev, came to power.

Because of [Talysh nationalist leader Fakhraddin] Aboszoda’s involvement with the would-be separatist group and pseudo-state, he remains a controversial figure in Azerbaijan to this day. After the collapse of the Mughan Autonomous Republic, Aboszoda went into exile in Russia. Hummatov was imprisoned in Azerbaijan, but he was released in 2004 and exiled to the Netherlands. From his perch outside the country, Hummatov has continued to campaign for Talysh autonomy, despite the movement’s decline in Azerbaijan, and has given numerous speeches on the issue in Armenia.

[…] Armenia has thrown its support behind Talysh nationalism, largely by backing the efforts of various Talysh leaders who are advocating for a separate Talysh identity. By supporting the Talysh in this way, Armenia further promotes the idea that any distinct ‘Azeri’ identity is artificial.

[…] While Armenia is clearly working to foment Talysh nationalist feeling, Russian involvement is less obvious. Although some Talysh leaders may have recently been given a degree of legitimacy by Russian media and think tanks, it is difficult to say whether the Russian government is actively intervening in Azerbaijan’s internal affairs.

[…] Given the economic and military situation in the South Caucasus, it seems strange Russia would overtly support the Talysh national movement. With the Russian economy in a tailspin, it is unlikely the Federation would endorse a move that would jeopardize lucrative arms deals with Azerbaijan by overtly provoking Talysh separatism. Unlike in South Ossetia, there is no group in Azerbaijan, including the Talysh, that would favor reunification with Russia, and no sizable Russian minority the Federation could supposedly intervene on behalf of, as with eastern Ukraine. […]

The Azeri regime’s heavy-handed response to internal dissent has consistently kept the government at odds with the United States and European Union, which otherwise consider the Caspian nation important to their national security interests because of its oil and natural gas reserves. Azeri crackdowns against outspoken Talysh leaders have regularly been documented in the U.S. State Department’s Report on Human Rights Practices in Azerbaijan. […] Unfortunately for the Talysh, they are at the mercy of international provocation and internal oppression. With Armenia remaining the sole patron of Talysh identity and culture, the minority group will continue to be caught up in geopolitical deadlock between Yerevan and Baku, and receive little support for their genuine aspirations.” (Muftah, 6 April 2015)

A December 2014 report by the Jamestown Foundation refers to the launch of a television station called “the National Television of Talyshton” and a possible involvement of Russia in the station. It also elaborates on the history of Talysh resistance to Baku and the possible perception of the Talysh as an irredentist movement in waiting by the government:

On November 29, a television station styling itself ’the National Television of Talyshton‘ (‘Tolyshystoni Millaiiya Vindasado‘—TMV) began broadcasting in Azerbaijan under the direction of Talysh poet Zabig Madozh. One year ago, Madozh launched a YouTube video service in the Talysh language, and he insists that this latest TV project is a cultural rather than a political project (vk.com/talishyi, December 6).

But the contents of TMV’s programming suggest it is, indeed, a politically motivated media outlet. For one thing, the TV station has chosen to use Cyrillic rather than the Perso-Arabic script, which is employed by the Talysh minority living in Iran. And second, Baku failed to react as promptly and harshly to TMV as it did to the appearance of Talysh radio broadcasts sponsored by Yerevan earlier this year (armradio.am, March 21). Taken together, these observations strongly imply that the new TV chanel is being covertly backed by Moscow. Evidently, Russia is attempting to send a signal to the Azerbaijani authorities that it retains the potential to stir up trouble in the southern portion of the Republic of Azerbaijan - where the majority of the country’s Talysh minority resides - just as it did in the early 1990s. Simultaneously, Russia continues to muddy the waters in the northern portion of Azerbaijan with its support of the Avar and Lezgin minority ethnic groups. […]

The Talysh have long been a political problem for Baku. The Azerbaijani government insists there are fewer than 80,000 of them in that country. Although some scholars and many Talysh activists say that the real number is vastly higher, with estimates - they have not been enumerated in a census since 1926 - being more than 500,000. But it is less their numbers than three other characteristics which make them a challenge.

First, the Talysh speak a language closely related to Persian. That is why the decision of TMV to use Cyrillic strongly suggests that Tehran was not behind it. Iranian propagandists have always preferred the Perso-Arabic script.

Second, the Talysh of Azerbaijan are concentrated in the southern portion of the country along the Iranian border; they have a long history of resistance to Baku, including the ill-fated Talysh Mughan Republic of 1993; and they are almost exclusively Shia. Azerbaijanis are approximately two-thirds Shia and one third Sunni. In the late 1930s, both Baku and Moscow viewed them as a sufficient threat to security that many Talysh were deported to Siberia. At that time, the Talysh-language institutions the Soviets had established in the 1920s were closed. Few of them were ever reopened, and many Talysh were under pressure to identify as Azerbaijanis rather than Talysh.

And third, there is a large Talysh population just over the border in Iran. Not only does this provide opportunities for influence and black market trading, but it means that Azerbaijani national security planners are likely to view the Talysh as an irredentist movement in waiting. Thus, in Baku’s eyes, this ethnic minority must be watched with extreme care.” (Jamestown Foundation, 9 December 2014)

Several sources mention the case of the Talysh journalist minority rights defender Hilal Mammadov who was arrested in 2012 after publishing a video on social networks. The World Organisation against Torture (OMCT) and the International Partnership of Human Rights (IPHR) describe the case in its submission to the Committee against Torture in October 2015:

“Journalist and minority rights defender Hilal Mammadov is considered to be the leader of the Talysh community and defender of their rights since his ‘predecessor’ died in detention in 2009. He was editor-in-chief of the ‘Tolishi-Sado’ (Voice of Talysh) bilingual Azerbaijani-Talish newspaper, chairman of the Talish Cultural Centre, leader of the Novruzali Mammadov Defence Committee from 2007 to 2009 and has been the chairman of the Committee for Rehabilitation of Detainees since 2009.

Shortly before his arrest in May 2012 he published a short video on social networks to raise the population’s awareness of the Talysh community. The video repeated the phrase ’Who are you? Come on, goodbye’ and became very popular in Azerbaijan and Russia with more than 20,000,000 views. Despite a warning by the authorities that he would face retaliatory measures, Mr. Mammadov gave an interview about the song to a film crew of the Russian TV channel NTV and invited them to attended a Talysh folklore party on 13 June 2012, during which he criticised the government for its handling of the 2012 Eurovision song contest and the marginalisation of the Talysh people.

A few days later, on 21 June 2012, Mr. Mammadov was arrested, questioned about his political views and ethnic identity, and beaten by the officers until he lost consciousness. On 21 and 22 June 2012 the applicant was detained handcuffed and was deprived of food and water. On 22 June 2012 drug charges (illegal preparation, possession, purchase, transportation and sale of narcotic substances in large quantities; Article 234.4.3 of the Criminal Code) were brought against him, allegedly because of substances similar to heroin found during a body search conducted at the police station as well as a search carried out in his flat without any court order the same day. Mr. Mammadov submitted a written comment for the records noting that the narcotic substances did not belong to him. On 3 July 2012 new criminal offences, namely high treason (Articles 274) and incitement to ethnic, racial, social or religious hatred and hostility (Article 283.2.2), were added to his charges. He lodged a series of requests and appeals against his pre-trial detention as well as complaints concerning his ill-treatment during his arrest and at the police station, all of which were unsuccessful. Furthermore, on 26, 28 and 29 November 2012 Mr. Mammadov was beaten and injured by his mentally ill cell mate in a Kurdakhani prison despite his lawyers’ previous requests to remove him from the cell. On 21 December 2012 his file was transferred to the Baku Grave Crimes Court for trial and the first hearing of the semi-closed trial took place on 9 January 2013. On 27 September 2013 he was sentenced to five years in prison.

In November 2013 the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that his detention was arbitrary and called for his immediate release. On 4 November 2014 the ECtHR communicated an application on his case lodged on 19 November 2012. On 24 February 2015 the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights made a third party intervention.” (OMCT/IPHR, 26 October 2015, pp. 13-14)

The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance of the Council of Europe also mentions Mammadov’s case in its June 2016 Report on Azerbaijan (CoE-ECRI, 7 June 2016, pp. 19-20). The Berlin-based exile media website Meydan TVdescribes the case in the abovementioned April 2017 article and adds that Mammadov was pardoned by a decree of the president of Azerbaijan on 17 March 2016 (Meydan TV, 18 April 2017). The same article mentions several aspects

“Gilal Mamadov says that the Talysh don’t have any problems with the other ethnicities that make up the Azerbaijani population, but that there are many problems at that governmental level. ‘For example, we don’t have a single television or radio station on which they broadcast in Talysh for even a few hours a day. There was one newspaper, it was shut down. True, we are all the same publishing one newspaper at the moment, which costs us enormous effort. There is a national Talysh cultural center, but this is a strictly formal organization which in practice is non-operational.’

According to the Ministry of Education’s program, lessons should be in Talysh for first through fourth grades in those districts where the majority of the population is Talysh. But Gilal Mamadov says that in practice this is also purely formal, either lessons are given for show or they are simply replaced with other, extracurricular activities like ‘labour’. ‘School textbooks for studying Talysh were issued only once, in 2005. In Lankaran, the state university doesn’t have departments for training Talysh language teachers. That being said, I can’t say that in hiring there is some sort of discrimination towards Talysh.’

Mamadov believes that in order to resolve problems it is necessary, above all else, that the government fulfill the obligations it’s taken on and to adopt a law on ethnic minorities. ‘Such proposals have been introduced in parliament several times, but so far a law has not been adopted. Such a law would regulate the rights and responsibilities of ethnic minorities and would facilitate the resolution of many problems’, says Mamadov.

Despite the numerous problems associated with cultural autonomy, no particular discrimination is notable in acceptance to institutions of higher education and work. But Talysh cultural figures, especially musicians and singers, who are loyal to the government and ignore the problems of the Talysh ethnic group, are beloved on TV, among the press, and also by the government.

[…] This sort of attitude from the government towards an ethnic minority can be explained by the fear of separatism: on several occasions in their long history the Talysh have attempted to create their own state. The political observer Hikmet Hajisade says this is the government’s ‘nightmare’ and doesn’t believe that their concerns are baseless. There is already influence in the region from Shiite Iran, so the government’s fear is understandable. In a convenient convergence of circumstances, the Talysh can use Russia, Iran, and Armenia for their own political goals.” (Meydan TV, 18 April 2017)

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