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Poets Caught in Political Web

As two young Azeri poets enter their 11th week in detention in Iran, efforts to secure their release are not losing steam, nor are political tensions between the two countries.

Officials in Azerbaijan have publically condemned the arrest, which many experts have described as being political in nature.

The Iranian Centre for Independent Writers and Poets invited Farid Huseynzade (23) and Shahriyar Hajizade (21) to the Maraga poetry festival on Apr. 29.

The two were arrested on May 3 in Tabriz, while on a bus on the way back to Baku.

It took five diplomatic requests from the foreign ministry in Azerbaijan to prompt an official response from the Iranian government stating that the poets had been arrested in conjunction with “criminal activity”.

“However, Iran does not specify the (exact) crime that the poets are accused of,” Elman Abduallayev, spokesman of the foreign ministry of Azerbaijan, told IPS.

Iranian media have reported that the pair was arrested for espionage against Israel, as well as for the use of illegal drugs.

For Alik Alioghlu, a young writer and close friend of both Huseynzade and Hajizade, charging the two poets with espionage is “ridiculous”, as his friends have never been involved in political activity and never been critical of Iran.

“They were writing about love and about some social issues. They were not even interested in depicting the political situation in Azerbaijan (let alone in Iran),” Alioghlu told IPS.

Mail Hajizade, Shahriyar Hajizade’s farther, told IPS his son was never involved in any activity related to Iran.

For the duration of their arrest, the poets were only allowed to call home three times on May 27, Jun. 7 and Jun. 21. They told their parents they were being treated well and that they had been accused of entering Iran without the proper documentation.

However, according to an agreement between Iran and Azerbaijan, since Feb. 1, 2010 Azerbaijani citizens have been free to travel to Iran without a visa, except journalists. This contradicts Iranian officials’ justification for holding the two artists.

On Jul. 12, a group of 14 Azerbaijan-based youth organisations addressed United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon about the arrests in Iran and asked the rights body to take decisive steps towards the release of Huseynzade and Hajizade.

One of these organisations, the IRELI Public Association, issued a statement on Jul. 10 about the arrests and sent a letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei.

“If those poets were guilty, the Iranians would have announced it immediately,” said Orkhan Mukhtarli, head of the literature assembly at the IRELI Public Association. But the absence of an official statement for more than two months suggests that there is something else behind the arrest, she said.

Niyazi Mehdi, a professor at the Baku State University in Azerbaijan who taught both Huseynzade and Hajizade, believes the claims against the two are “unconvincing”.

“It is very difficult to get information out of Iran. It is ridiculous to accuse the poets of espionage because, at best, they can only take pictures of some buildings – which can be obtained via satellite anyway. So why send two poets all the way there (to spy)?”

Chingiz Abdullayev, a prominent writer and head of the PEN club in Baku, has also appealed for their release.

Shahbaz Khuduoghlu, journalist and director of the Qanun publishing house in Baku, believes that Iranian media coverage of the arrests – which generally ends with footage of meetings between Azebaijani president Ilham Aliyev and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – highlights the explicity political nature of the arrests.

“It shows that those poets are victims of a political (game) between Iran and Azerbaijan. That is why I sent a letter to the Iranian embassy in Azerbaijan to ask them to let Azerbaijani NGO representatives, journalists and lawyers meet the poets in Iran and clarify what happened. I have not heard anything back yet,” he told IPS.

Global geopolitics

The relationship between the two states has recently been deteriorating, with each side accusing the other of political treachery.

Officials in Azerbaijan say the Iranian authorities are planning terrorist attacks against the country, while Iranians have accused Azerbaijan of “siding with Israel”.

In January, police in Azerbaijan arrested Rasim Aliyev and Ali Huseynov in connection with an alleged plot to kill Israelis living in Azerbaijan.

In March security services in Azerbaijan arrested 22 people, mostly Azerbaijani citizens, who they said had been hired by Iran to carry out terrorist attacks against the U.S. and Israeli embassies in Baku.

Iranian officials criticised the arrests, saying that Azerbaijan was working for Israel.

The 1.6 billion-dollar arms deal between Azerbaijan and Isreal in 2011 made Iran concerned about Israel’s rising influence in the region, and suspicious that Israel could potentially use Azerbaijan to launch an attack against Iran.

In early May, when Azerbaijan was about to host the Eurovision Song Contest, Iranian officials claimed that the event was immoral and staged several protest actions against it.

“Response protests” erupted outside the Iranian embassy in Baku, during which demonstrators brandished posters depicting half-naked images of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei.

For Elkhan Shahinoghlu, head of the Atlas Research Centre, 2012 has been the most “intense” year in the two country’s 20-year-long diplomatic relationship, with the month of May being the climax in rising tensions.

“The arrest of the poets is Iran’s way of warning Azerbaijan that Iran can be aggressive if its messages are not taken seriously,” he added.

Still, on an official visit to Azerbaijan last month, the Iranian minister of education presented Aliyev with an invitation to participate in the upcoming summit of head of states of the Non-Aligned Movement member countries.

While receiving the Iranian minister on Jul. 12, Azerbaijan’s foreign minister demanded that Iran take concrete steps toward the release of the Azeri citizens.

Shahinoghlu said if the poets are not released in time for the summit, the Azeri president should stay away, as his presence in Iran “would (paint) a very bad image of both (our) president and of the country”.

Meanwhile, the Iranian government has not yet arranged the requested meeting between the poets and an Azerbaijani counsellor.

Now the foreign ministry has issued a warning to its citizens to be cautious while traveling to Iran.

Deputy Foreign Minister of Iran, Seyed Abbas Arakchi, will arrive in Azerbaijan soon to discuss the current situation in bilateral terms.

(END)

 
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