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15 Febb_ 2013 :Akram Aylisli; Azeri writer Akram Aylisli hounded for 'pro-Armenian' book
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‎15 February 2013 Last updated at 01:09 GMT‎
By Damien McGuinness BBC News, Tbilisi 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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