Out in the World: LGBTQ Azerbaijani activists angered by lenient sentence in gay journalist's murder

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Friday August 5, 2022
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In 2021, Avaz Hafizli made a name for himself by chaining himself to the fence outside the chief prosecutor's office for what he claimed was its insufficient action against anti-LGBTQ threats toward the country's queer community. Photo Courtesy ILGA-Europe<br>
In 2021, Avaz Hafizli made a name for himself by chaining himself to the fence outside the chief prosecutor's office for what he claimed was its insufficient action against anti-LGBTQ threats toward the country's queer community. Photo Courtesy ILGA-Europe

LGBTQ activists in Azerbaijan are angered that the Baku Court of Grave Crimes gave the lightest sentence possible to the man convicted of the murder of a prominent Azerbaijani gay activist and journalist.

Amrulla Gulaliyev, 24, was sentenced to nine years and six months in prison by a judge for the February killing of Avaz Shikhmammadov, 24, who was better known as Avaz Hafizli. Gulaliyev was Hafizli's cousin.

LGBTQ Azerbaijani activists told reporters the court could have sentenced Gulaliyev to the maximum of 12 years prison time under Azerbaijan's Criminal Code.

Open Caucasus Media reported that the court could have sentenced Gulaliyev to 20 years to life in prison. The court could have considered his pre-hearing testimony and enhanced the charges against him to "murder with special cruelty," due to the brutality and stating the murder was because the victim was gay, LGBTQ activists said.

Azerbaijan is a former Soviet republic.

The victim

In 2021, Hafizli made a name for himself by chaining himself to the fence outside the chief prosecutor's office for what he claimed was its insufficient action against anti-LGBTQ threats toward the country's queer community.

Hafizli's complaints against anti-LGBTQ Azerbaijani Instagrammer Sevinj Huseynova — who repeatedly called for the removal and murder of LGBTQ people from Azerbaijan — were ignored by authorities, LGBTQ activists told the outlet Minority AZ. They said his requests for protection were also ignored. Huseynova and authorities weren't held accountable, they said.

Hafizli himself was an open target for threats for being out in Azerbaijan, LGBTQ activists told Minority AZ. International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association-Europe compiled a timeline leading up to Hafizli's killing and Gulaliyev's sentencing.

But being a target did not stop Hafizli. He organized protests, calling for Azerbaijan's government to ban discrimination against LGBTQ people, reported Voice of America.

LGBTQ activists also noted that in 2020 he paid for a murdered transgender sex worker's funeral after her family refused to collect her body from the morgue, according to Pink News.

Being gay is not illegal in Azerbaijan. However, LGBTQ Azerbaijanis have few to no rights, and being queer remains taboo. Despite these challenges, some LGBTQ Azerbaijanis have become more vocal following three waves of anti-LGBTQ attacks within the last five years. The most recent, in 2021, included the detention of 83 suspected LGBTQ people, reported independent media outlet Meydan TV. That echoed similar detentions in 2017, reported Human Rights Watch at the time.

Voice of America noted that Hafizli covered a wide variety of issues for the independent video news website, 13Kanal, including LGBTQ rights.

In addition to his LGBTQ activism, Hafizli was also a vocal advocate for freedom of the press, the media outlet reported. He participated in demonstrations against Azerbaijan's media law that President Ilham Aliyev signed into law in February.

Media advocacy organizations, like the Committee to Protect Journalists, called for Azerbaijan officials to repeal the law that severely restricts freedom of the press and they say is essentially creating state-controlled media.

Azerbaijan ranks at the bottom of ILGA-Europe's annual Rainbow Map and Index at 49 out of 49 European countries on LGBTQ rights. Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index ranks Azerbaijan 154 out of 180 countries regarding press freedom.

The murder and hearings

Hafizli was found decapitated and castrated outside his home in Baku, Azerbaijan's capital, on February 22.

Azerbaijani police arrested Hafizli's cousin, Gulaliyev, soon after the murder. Gulaliyev confessed to killing Hafizli.

The hearings started at the Baku Court of Grave Crimes on June 20. LGBTQ activists complained that authorities kept activists and media out of the courtroom during the public hearings. The activists launched a petition that was sent to Aliyev, the country's ministry of justice, and its general prosecutor's office.

LGBTQ activist Ali Malikov told Global Voices that until they became vocal "he and other activists were not allowed into the courtroom during the first two hearings, even though the trial was open to the public."

The activists were allowed into the courtroom for the two remaining hearings on July 18 and 29, but that was not without issues. In an unusual move, the hearings suddenly started on time and the courtroom doors were shut for those who didn't make it in, Malikov said.

Prior to the hearings, Gulaliyev said that he planned his cousin's murder for three months because Hafizli, "ruined the name of the family," for being gay, he said, reported Minority AZ.

However, Gulaliyev changed his story while on the stand, testifying that he and Hafizli were arguing when he killed his cousin, LGBTQ activists present at the court hearings told reporters.

"I told him to return to turn from this path [being gay] and he said: 'It's my life, go and do your job,'" Gulaliyev told the court, reported Pink News. "I took a knife from the kitchen and attacked him."

Calls for harsher sentencing

LGBTQ activists believe the brutality of Hafizli's murder warrants a harsher sentence.

They expressed anger that the court turned a blind eye to Gulaliyev's pre-hearing testimony, the brutality of the killing, and did not recognize the murder as a hate crime.

"The additional evidence — the premeditation of the murder, beheading, and genital mutilation — was not taken into account during the final hearing on July 29. As such, Amrulla Gulaliyev received the lowest possible sentence," tweeted Azerbaijani LGBTQ activist Vahid Aliyev.

Sexual orientation and gender identity are not protected under Azerbaijanis' hate crimes law.

Disappointed and angered after the verdict, Azerbaijani LGBTQ activists lit up Twitter and called out the court and advocated for change.

"The culprits of his death are society, the Azerbaijani government, and state security agencies," LGBTQ+ activist Lili Nazarov told Pink News. "Every year, dozens of LGBTQI+ [people] are slaughtered because they are LGBTQI+.

"How many more people must be slain in order to guarantee our safety and rights?" Nazarov added. "Who will be killed next?"

Malikov said LGBTQ rights must be respected, hate crimes must end, and laws need to be more inclusive told Global Voices.

"We have a right to mobilize. We should not be seeking permission for that, so it is important that all the barriers are lifted," Malikov said.

Got international LGBTQ news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp/Signal: 415-517-7239, or [email protected]

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