IDPs took to streets, because they could not afford to pay their energy bills. They ended up arrested
“I swear to God, when my son left the house, he didn’t even put his shoes on, he just went out in women’s slippers. He said, he was going to the relatives, who live on the other side of the village. On his way back, he saw the people gathering in the street, so he went to them. My son neither broke anything, nor battered any police officers. He just went to see what would be the upshot of all that with electricity issue. And he was taken for nothing. Let them bring my son back to me …” Afilya Bayramova said, weeping.
Her son, Ilkin Iskanderov, 25, was detained in Bilyasuvar district (153 km from the capital). Here, in the settlements of internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Jabrayil district, Karabakh, the residents held a rally on December 22, protesting against power cutoff in the villages.
3 persons were arrested immediately after the rally, whereas 2 more villagers were arrested on December 26. So far, they have been arrested for 3 months and the criminal proceedings have been instituted against them. Apart from involvement in an unsanctioned rally, they have been also accused of physical abuse of police officers and publicly dangerous actions.
“Earlier, money wasn’t collected from people, but there was almost uninterrupted power supply. Then they started collecting AZN 5-10 per household, saying we were exceeding the limit, and so on and so forth etc., And we didn’t argue. However, since October, they started cutting off power supply quite often.
Whereas in the past 15 days, power has been cut off almost every day, from 1p.m. and until 7-8 p.m. All of us have children, elderly and sick people at home. People are freezing in the winter cold. So, we said: ‘either collect the money, or don’t cut off power supply.’ That’s the reason we held the rally that evening,” says Muhammad Bayramov, Ilkin’s grandfather.
The internally displaced persons enjoy public utility service benefits. However, electricity isn’t absolutely free of charge for them, but rather to a certain limit-150 kWh of electric power per month. There is also gas limit- 35cub.m. per month. It’s the State Committee for Refugees and IDPs that pays for that ‘limit’ volume of electricity and gas to the public utilities service provider enterprises, and, on top of it, the IDPs cover it themselves.
Arif Farzaliyev, First Deputy Head of the Executive Government of Jabrayil district, told Modern.az website, power supply in the village was restored the same evening.
“The IDPs have a huge debt. The citizens have exceeded the limit. Therefore, Imishli regional power grid cut off the power supply to subscribers. However, after the negotiations, everything has got back to normal. The situation is calm now, there are no clashes there.”
According to the Interior Ministry’s statement, ‘a group of villagers organized a march to the Jabrayil district executive government building. The protesters refused to pay the bills for consumed electricity.”
As it is pointed out in the Ministry’s statement, ‘despite the police officers’ call for the unsanctioned rally participants to disperse, the IDPs refused to obey and started using sticks and stones. 9 police officers suffered various injuries at discharge of their duties, and 1 service car window was also broken.”
Three individuals -Jalal Guliyev, Ilkin Iskander and Gulyaga Almamedov, were detained immediately after the rally. Under the court ruling, they were arrested for preliminary investigation, for the period of 3 months.
The Serious Crimes Investigation Department of the Prosecutor General’s Office instituted criminal proceedings over the case under the Articles 186.2.2 (deliberate destruction or damage of property by an arson, explosion or other publicly dangerous way, or that entailed heavy consequences), 233 (organization of actions promoting violation of public order or active involvement in such actions) and 315.2 (resistance to or application of violence against a public officer, or application of violence dangerous to life or health, with regard to individuals specified in the given Article) of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Azerbaijan.
On December 26, under the court ruling, a 3-month custodial arrest was chosen as a restrain measure against two more individuals facing the same charges – Ulvi Guliyev and Zaur Feruzlu.
‘Scum of society’
In an interview with the Azerbaijani service of Radio Liberty, Astan Shahverdiyev, a member of the ruling ‘Yeni Azerbaijan’ party, who represents Jabrayil district in Parliament, strongly condemned the protesters: ‘a group of drunkards and drug addicts, discontent with the government, has raised its head…,’ he stated. The MP referred to his electorate as ‘scum of society.’
His words stirred a wave of protest on social media and indignation of the residents of Bilyasuvar settlements. Here’s what the wife of one of the arrestees says:
“I can’t respond on behalf of others, but as Ilkin’s wife, I demand his blood test to be done. If it turns out that he uses either drugs or alcohol, then I will be equally guilty. How could they slander people so?!” Ulduz Iskanderova wondered.
“I haven’t seen this MP either before or after the elections. He has never come and showed interest in people’s problems,” says Ilkin Iskanderov’s mother. Other residents have never laid eyes on ‘their MP’ either. Some of them even don’t know his name.
Ulduz Iskanderova is first-time pregnant. Now she is alone with her mother-in-law. Ilkin’s father died a few years ago. Ilkin is the only breadwinner in the family. And he could barely make ends meet, earning through car repair. According to Ulduz khanum: ‘If someone’s car is broken, then we have bread at home, if not – there is no food either.’ An elderly mother’s pension, amounting to AZN130 (US$71), and the IDP benefit –AZN19 per person, is the only regular monthly income of this family.
“We don’t know what to spend that money on: either on medical checkup, treatment or food. My mother-in-law is an elderly woman, she suffers diabetes and high pressure, so she needs to be bought medicines. How are we supposed to pay electricity bills in such a situation”? says Ulduz Iskanderova.
When we were leaving the house, Afilya khanum, who was seeing us off, showed us a pair of men’s shoes at the doorstep: “This is my son’s footwear. A man won’t go out fighting in women’s slippers, no putting on his shoes, will he?! she says and starts crying again.
I doesn’t even occur to the woman, that a person may have more than one pair of shoes. And that’s not surprising, especially if taking into account the family income.
Jabrayil and its residents
Jabrayil is one of the adjacent districts of Nagorno Karabakh, populated by 77,000 people. As a result of Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, it was occupied by the Armenian armed forces on August 25, 1993. Jojug Marjanly is the only village in the district, which is currently under Azerbaijan’s control.
IDPs from Jabrayil district are scattered across Azerbaijan. The settlements of Bilyasuvar district, where the rally was held, is exactly the area densely populated by the IDPs from Jabrayil district. 18,000 resident of Jabrayil currently live in 11 settlements that were built and commissioned in 2003.
Throughout 13 years of its existence, the settlement roads have never been repaired, gas pipelines haven’t been laid, water is supplied only 1 hour per day, and the situation with electricity is already clear. However, the biggest problem is unemployment. In their words, the overwhelming majority of the settlement inhabitants are unemployed. They peep cattle and poultry, eke out income with odd-jobs and could hardly make both ends meet.
“Those, who are demanding money from us, would better first provide us with jobs. Children born from 2017 will not be granted an IDP status, neither will they be paid the benefits. We’d better be deprived of the IDP status. People can’t be regarded as displaced 23 years later! If they can’t give us back our lands, let them title those apartments in our names and provide us with jobs, so that we could be the normal citizens, and only afterwards demand us to pay utility service fees,” says one of the settlement residents.
Where the police officers really beaten?
The arrestees aren’t allowed to meet their family members. They don’t have lawyers, since they can’t afford hiring a lawyer due to the lack of funds, and they have no hope for ‘a public defender’.
“No one either physically abuse the police or damaged anything there. People just gathered outside the club, located next to the executive government building. The only thing they demanded was to restore power supply. There were a lot of police officers; they treated people in a rude manner. Then a controversy arose. Then the police used tear gas. Everything got messed up, everyone scattered. In that pushing and shoving one could easily fall and get minor injuries, be that protesters or the policemen. A couple of lamps were smashed in the park at that time. That’s it. Is it right to put people in jail and launch criminal cases for that,” says the rally participant, who didn’t wish to be named.
“Let them release my child and not let him die.”
Then we visited the house of one more arrestee, Jalal Guliyev, 33. Two kids, with their cheeks reddened from cold, were the first whom we met in the yard. One child was 4 and another was 6 year old. A young woman with a year-old baby in her arms immediately came out after them. Although the baby was warmly dressed, his nose and cheeks were still red from cold.
Jalal Guliyev’s mother, Narmina Mammadova, invited us into the house. There were two huge electric heaters on in the house, but it was as cold as outside. The power pressure was too low, besides, the house was even with the ground and the rooms felt damp.
“My son is neither a ruffian nor a rowdy, and both, the relatives and neighbors can confirm that. Without electricity it’s very cold at home. Everyone hit the street to demand restoration of power supply, and my son went too. What has he been slandered for? My son has lungs disease. Prison will be equal to death to him. Let them release my son and not let him die.”
Children, who were attentively listening to their grandmother’s story, started crying. “We didn’t tell the children that their father was jailed. And when they asked, we said he was in hospital and would get back after he recovered.”
A few days before the aforesaid developments they had decorated the Christmas tree. They expected their father to present them gifts on the New Year Day, whereas now his return home is what they dream about most.