By Elmar Chakhtakhtinski
The tragic murder of writer Rafig Tagi raises alarming questions about the state’s failure to protect a citizen whose life has long been widely known to be in a mortal danger. Regardless of who fatally stabbed the writer and whether there are some hidden forces behind this terrible crime, the Azerbaijani government bears responsibility for its willful inaction in the face of publicly declared threats against Tagi. This event once more proves the utter disregard by the Aliyev regime towards the plight of ordinary Azerbaijanis.
In 2006, Mohammed Fazel Lankarani, one of about a dozen or so clerics holding the highest religious rank of “grand ayatollah” in Iran, publicly issued a fatwa (religious ruling) obliging his followers to kill the Azerbaijani journalist Rafig Tagi for his article in “Senet” newspaper. While accusing Tagi of insulting Islam, this fatwa eerily resembled the famous death sentence by Iran’s Supreme Leader Khomeini against the British author of “Satanic Verses”, Salman Rushdie. It also reminded the more recent case of death threats by Muslim extremists against the Danish cartoonist Jyllands-Posten.
However, the response of the Azerbaijani authorities to such a “verdict” from a radical foreign cleric was strikingly different from the steps taken by the UK on Rushdie or Denmark on Jyllands-Posten. Instead of providing sufficient security and a safe location for Tagi, the government controlled court (as all of them in Azerbaijan are) decided to lock him and “Senet”’s editor in jail for a few years on “inciting religious hatred” charges. Both were pardoned by president Aliyev and released the same year, apparently with no special security arrangements provided to them. No diplomatic protests were ever launched with Iran by Baku for allowing the death fatwa to be issued against an Azerbaijani journalist. Neither, of course, did the Azeri authorities, notorious for their own blatant violations of basic freedoms, speak out in defense of the right of an Azerbaijani citizen to express his opinion about religion. Such a response by the government, perhaps attempting to placate the anger directed at Tagi from some radically minded religious groups, might have sent precisely the wrong message to his fanatical would-be killers.
Aliyev regime loves to portray itself to the Western public as a “staunchly secular” government, locked in an epic battle against the religious extremism, particularly the kind coming from the neighboring Iran. Usually this “secularism” is expressed in infringing on constitutionally guaranteed rights of ordinary citizens to exercise their religious beliefs, such as a ban on wearing head scarves in schools, recent brutal crackdown on ceremonial religious gatherings in Nakhchivan, arbitrary closure of mosques etc… However, when the time came to really stand up against the forces of intolerance and radicalism, and defend the secular ideals, such as the right to freely express one’s views on religion, the Baku regime effectively sided with the Iranian ayatollah and jailed Tagi.
Perhaps this is because the regime does not really care about secularism or freedoms and safety of its citizens, and it acts only when any danger to its own safety arises.
Tagi’s death comes on the heels of several other murders of high profile figures, including the air force chief of staff Rail Rzayev, dissident journalist Elmar Huseynov, politically vocal historian Ziya Bunyatov, and victims of Oil Academy massacre – all cases where the government was widely accused of not willing to find the real perpetrators.
Azerbaijani citizens might indeed pose a few unsettling questions to their president:
· President Aliyev, how come you found (where from???) $75 million dollars for luxury villas in Dubai for your teenage kids, but your government, receiving tens of billions of dollars in oil revenues, could not provide sufficient security for an Azerbaijani citizen on whom an open death fatwa has been publicly issued by an Iranian ayatollah?
· If your government officials were not so corrupt and busy stealing public wealth, and your security forces were not spending all their time tracking down, attacking and jailing journalists, opposition members, youth activists, and protesters, would they then find enough time for protecting the freedoms and safety of your citizens?
· Maybe the care with which the UK and Denmark authorities regard the their own citizens, while your government does not, can be explained by the fact that their leaders are freely elected by the people every few years and are accountable to them, while you inherited this post from your father after falsified “elections” and have no terms limits anymore to your rule?
The public might also wonder whether the Aliyev government will ever hold Iran responsible for inciting a murder of Azerbaijani citizen and find the actual killers, or this case too will fade into a long chain of similarly disturbing killings left without satisfactory answers.