By COURTNEY MABEUS
COLLEGE PARK, Maryland — Seymur Hezi’s absence is most glaring during morning tea.
That’s the daily ritual that Hezi and his younger brother, Teymur, enjoyed over conversation in the home they shared with their parents and extended family in Sumgayit, a city on the Caspian Sea a little more than a dozen miles north of Baku, Azerbaijan’s gleaming capital.
After tea, the brothers would often go out and shop together. Now, the elder Hezi is living out a five-year prison term following his January 2015 conviction in an Azerbaijani court on aggravated hooliganism charges.
“I’m lonely without him,” Teymur Hezi said.
Police picked up Hezi, a 34-year-old reporter for the opposition newspaper Azadliq and a presenter on the online program “Azerbaijani Hour,” from a suburban Baku bus stop August 29, 2014. His arrest came within minutes of an altercation with a man who approached him and asked why he hadn’t responded to his Facebook messages, according Adil Ismayilov, the attorney who represented Hezi during his trial, and the Committee to Protect Journalists, a press freedom advocacy group.
With local legal remedies now exhausted, Shahla Humbatova, Hezi’s current attorney, said she has appealed his case to the Council of Europe’s European Court of Human Rights on the basis that he did not receive a fair trial.
Human rights organizations along with Hezi’s friends, colleagues and family say the journalist was targeted not because he assaulted the man but for a career spent lobbing jabs at the government of President Ilham Aliyev.
The government “doesn’t want any critical journalism,” Alakbar Raufoglu, a former colleague of Hezi’s and journalist who now works in Washington, D.C., said.
Hezi said he struck his attacker, Magerram Hasanov, with a water bottle. But he said it was in self-defense. Hasanov received a six-month sentence.
Azerbaijan’s prisons are home to a brain trust of journalists and human rights defenders who have criticized Aliyev’s administration for what they say is its corrupt and unjust practices. Aliyev pardoned or released a handful of those prisoners earlier this year after months of mounting pressure from foreign governments and human rights activists including international lawyer Amal Clooney. Still, as many as 80 political prisoners remain jailed or in prison, according to U.S. and European governments and organizations that monitor the human rights situation there.
Azerbaijan ranked fifth on CPJ’s 2015 10 Most Censored Countries lists; it’s also on the organization’s list of the worst jailers. The country also dropped from 162 to 163 on Reporters Without Borders’ 2016 World Press Freedom Index.
“Europe’s biggest prison for news providers,” is how the index referred to Azerbaijan in 2015, the year the country slipped from 160 to 162.
On Monday, Reporters Without Borders named Hezi among its 22 nominees for its 2016 press freedom prize, which will be awarded Nov. 8. “His imprisonment is an example of how President Ilham Aliyev continues to suppress freedoms ruthlessly,” the organization said.
Aliyev signed a law in February 2015 that says any media outlet that receives foreign funding or is accused of defamation twice in one year can be shuttered. The Azerbaijani parliament approved the legislation in mid-December 2014; a little more than a week later, authorities raided the Baku offices of the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, freezing its bank accounts as well the personal accounts of some of its employees. RFE/RL closed the office in May.
Independent journalists in Azerbaijan are targeted by the government, said Arzu Geybullayeva, a journalist and regional analyst who has worked with RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani service in Prague.
“You are almost the opposition, even if you are not the opposition,” she said.
Hezi sees his life behind bars as a “serious opportunity,” he wrote in response to questions sent to him by Capital News Service. Much of his time is spent reading think-tank publications and studying languages and U.S. strategy toward the Caucasus and other regions.
Sevinc Vaqifqizi, a Baku-based reporter for Meydan TV, said she has helped bring Hezi books, including those by French Enlightenment writer Voltaire. He also requested a copy of former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s book, “Diplomacy,” she said.
In August, Hezi married Nigar Yagublu, a former Meydan TV journalist, in a ceremony at the prison. Prison officials did not allow photos of the ceremony, Yagublu said. During a return visit later that month, Hezi told his new wife that prison officials passed along what seemed to be a warning: if she reported negatively on the prison’s conditions, the couple would not be allowed to meet under “good” conditions, she said. Yagublu also said her husband faces harsher restrictions than other prisoners but did not elaborate.
Hezi called the lack of free speech in Azerbaijan an “international security issue” adding that the Aliyev government is now in a “testing period. “
“Such hard periods give a chance to the nations to understand, to recognize themselves and to protect themselves much better, and we also have such chance now,” Hezi wrote.
Hezi did not answer more direct questions about his journalism activities or day-to-day life behind bars but his attorney and friends say he has remained positive. The May release from prison of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, whose case rallied supporters around the world, has encouraged Hezi, Vaqifqizi and Humbatova, his attorney, said.
Ismayilova, the most well-known Azeri journalist, remains on probation and is banned from traveling outside of Baku. She said she now feels obliged to help those like her who remain in jail or imprisoned by continuing to report on their cases. Hezi also continues to work, she said. From prison, he urged independent newspapers to the leave the country’s press council, which has become a patsy for the government, she said.
“Seymur is one of the bravest journalists in Azerbaijan,” Ismayilova said.
The August bus stop incident was not Hezi’s first documented brush with trouble related to his work. In 2011, he was picked up by six masked men who put a sack over his head and beat him, according to CPJ. Reporters Without Borders also said Hezi’s attackers told him to be as “intelligent and quiet as the others.”
During the two hour kidnapping, his cell phones were taken and a laptop was also examined, CPJ reported at the time.
Hezi, who is also a long-time member of the opposition Popular Front Party, didn’t heed the warning to be quiet. On “Azerbaijani Hour,” Hezi frequently ran pieces that raised questions about the Aliyev government, his editor Ganimat Zayidov, said. On a May 4, 2014 episode, Hezi discussed Transportation Minister Ziya Mammadov’s nephews, who are known to own flashy cars they drive through Baku at excessive speeds, Zayidov said. Their father, Elton Mammadov, is a well-connected Baku businessman. Hezi alleged that Aliyev was unwilling to punish the businessman’s sons.
In another episode dated August 26, 2012, Hezi compared the political leadership in Azerbaijan and its treatment of its citizens with the Syrian government led by Bashar al-Assad.
“Our situation is not different than Syria,” Hezi said.
For all his passion for work, Hezi also maintained his devotion to friends and family. He spent weekends with his young niece and nephew, taking them out and also playing computer games with them. Hezi often asks about his niece and nephew when he calls home.
“They hug his clothes,” his brother, Teymur Hezi said. “All of their memories are about him.”
While traveling out of the country, Hezi had received warnings via email not to come home and that his actions were being monitored, Vaqifqizi said.
Still, Hezi came home. In his January 29, 2015 statement to the court, he detailed a letter he wrote to Interior Minister Ramil Usubov in which he said “there was no need to assign” people to chase and pursue him.
“Call me and I will come to your office myself,” Hezi said he wrote in that letter.
Hezi’s father, Mashgul Hezi, called his son’s upbeat attitude about his prison sentence a result of years of preparation in anticipation of an arrest. He said he views his son’s actions as following in the footsteps of his great grandfather, Hezi Heziyev, who fought Soviet rule and was exiled to Siberia.
“I’m proud of him that he says the truth,” Mashgul Hezi said in a phone interview.