Azeri writer Akram Aylisli hounded for 'pro-Armenian' book

Anti-Aylisli protesters Anti-Aylisli protests have been held in Azerbaijan over his book

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His books have been publicly burnt. He has been stripped of his national literary awards. And a high-ranking Azeri politician has offered $13,000 (£8,400) as a bounty for anyone who will cut off his ear.

But 75-year-old Akram Aylisli, one of Azerbaijan's most eminent authors, does not regret having written his short novel Stone Dreams.

The book has shocked many Azeris. But could it also prove the first tentative step towards peace with the country's longstanding enemy Armenia?

"I knew what I was writing. They say I offended the nation. But I think quite the opposite: I think I have raised my nation up," he told the BBC by phone.

"I could predict they would be unhappy. But I could never have predicted such horrors, such as calls for a writer to be killed, or his book to be burnt. It is very sad that our nation is humiliating itself in this way. A country that can burn books will not be respected by the rest of the world."

The book describes Azerbaijan's conflict with neighbouring Armenia through the 20th Century. But it details the massacres of Armenians by Azeris, portraying the tragedy of war from Armenia's perspective.

Scars of conflict

Azerbaijan is still traumatised by losing both the war in the 1990s and almost 20% of its territory - the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent areas. So depicting Azeris as perpetrators is shocking enough. To entirely leave out accounts of Azeri suffering is for many unforgiveable.

Akram Aylisli - screen grab from Reuters TV Akram Aylisli has been stripped of national honours

After the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991, Azerbaijan and Armenia fought a brutal war in which both sides suffered enormously, with up to 30,000 people killed and a million forced to flee their homes.

Today, despite a tenuous ceasefire, the two countries are still locked in conflict, with dozens killed every year.

But even some of the book's critics, such as Azeri opposition activist Murad Gassanly, condemn the persecution of its author.

"With the exception of ultra-liberal circles, very few people actually liked the book or its message," he explained.

"(But) the book burnings, street protests and calls for violence against the author were orchestrated primarily by pro-government circles.

"There is no freedom of assembly in Azerbaijan - it is impossible to gather and collectively read books, let alone burn them! The fact that these protests were allowed, protected by police and then shown on national state TV suggests that they were orchestrated from the top."

Azeri government officials could not be reached for comment.

National vitriol

President Ilham Aliyev himself signed the decree stripping Aylisli of his national awards and monthly literary stipend.

Ruling party parliamentarians demanded he leave the country or that his DNA be tested to see if he was really Azeri, and not in fact Armenian. And high-ranking government officials called him a traitor, saying "public hatred" was the correct response. Aylisli's wife and son both lost their jobs in state-controlled institutions.

The calls for violence against Aylisli - echoing Iran's notorious fatwa against British author Salman Rushdie - have sparked strong condemnation from abroad.

Suddenly aware of the harmful effect a state-sanctioned bounty against a writer could have on Azerbaijan's international image, on Wednesday, after a warning from the government, the head of the Modern Musavat party retracted his call for Aylisli's ear to be cut off.

Arrest of anti-Aliyev protester in Baku, 26 Jan 13 Azeri police have cracked down on opposition protesters

Many analysts believe the vitriol against the author was an attempt by the authorities to divert attention from a wave of anti-government protests, which had swept the country in January.

There are signs that increasing numbers of Azeris are dissatisfied with the growing disparity between rich and poor under President Aliyev, who faces an election in October. And members of his government are accused of corruption.

"It's not unusual for the government to find a common enemy and unite around it," said Giorgi Gogia from Human Rights Watch. "And it's not the first time that freedom of information and free speech are under attack."

At least five journalists critical of Azerbaijan's government are currently behind bars, on what human rights activists describe as trumped-up charges.

And in January two well-respected opposition politicians, one of whom intends to run in October's presidential elections, were arrested, accused of organising anti-government protests. They are being held in pre-trial detention, which in Azerbaijan can last more than a year. If found guilty, they could face years in prison.

Distorted history

Stifling free speech not only quashes political dissent. The fear is that it could also be harming Azerbaijan's chance of ever making peace with Armenia.

"This book tackles the issue which needs to be discussed in society: looking at the past," says Mr Gogia, who believes Aylisli was extremely brave by being the first high-profile Azeri author to show sympathy towards victims from the other side.

"Freedom of speech applies not only to those ideas that are favourable. But even more so to those that shock and offend."

For decades the historical narrative in both Azerbaijan and Armenia has failed to focus on the tragedies suffered by the other side.

"Peace can only be achieved by kindness, not with anger. With anger you can never solve this issue," said Aylisli.

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