New York City—PEN American Center today expressed serious concern for the safety of prominent Azerbaijani writer Akram Aylisli, who is the target of an increasingly hostile campaign in which a lawmaker has promised a bounty for cutting off his ear and angry crowds have burned copies of his books outside his home. PEN blamed government officials for the threats, calling actions against the writer “an alarming abdication of a government’s first duty to protect the essential rights of its citizens.”

The persecution of Aylisli began earlier this month, when Azerbaijani lawmakers accused the writer of insult to the Azerbaijani people after his novella, Stone Dreams, was published in translation in a Russian literary journal. The novella is set during wartime in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which declared itself an independent republic in 1991 and saw years of bloodshed between Azerbaijanis and Armenians, and tells the story of two Azerbaijani men who tried to protect their Armenian neighbors from persecution and ethnic violence by Azerbaijanis in Karabakh. Some lawmakers demanded that Aylisli be deprived of his special status as a state writer, a demand that was met on February 7, 2013, when President Ilham Aliyev stripped Aylisli of his state honors and his monthly $1,250 pension, which had been awarded in recognition of his long contribution to literature in Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijani media reports that Aylisli was penalized for “distorting facts in Azerbaijani history and insulting the feelings of Azerbaijani people.” The decision came a week after protestors had gathered outside Aylisli’s home in Baku, shouting “shame” and burning his portrait and books.

And yesterday, Hafiz Hajiyev, chairman of the opposition Modern Musavat Party, announced that he would offer a 10,000 AZN (approx. US$12,700) reward to anyone who cut off Akram Aylisli’s ear. Azerbaijan’s Minister of the Interior subsequently announced that such calls for violence were unacceptable and will be investigated, but the threat remains acute.

The intimidation has extended to Aylisli’s family, as his son, a high customs official, was asked to resign from his position, and his wife was forced to quit her job at a public library. Baku’s National Drama Theater also canceled a production of Aylisli’s play Don’t Love Me.

“It is clear that the campaign against Mr. Aylisli has been organized and calculated, and that it is that campaign, far more than Mr. Aylisli’s work, that is inflaming tensions,” said Larry Siems, director of Freedom to Write and International Programs. “The groups that are burning his book and besieging his home are following the example of government officials who have stripped him and his family of their positions and urged that he be physically attacked. We deplore these actions, which are clear violations of Mr. Aylisli’s right to freedom of expression, and call on the government of Azerbaijain to act decisively and visibly to guarantee his safely, and to protect the right of all Azerbaijainis to reflect on, explore, and peacefully debate their history.”

Aylisli, who is 75 years old, is a highly regarded writer, poet, and playwright who has won numerous awards in the Soviet and post-Soviet eras, including, Azerbaijan’s most prestigious literary prize, the Independence Award, in 2002. Formally a student at the Maxim Gorky Institute for Literature, he began his literary career in the late 1950s, and his most famous works include When the Mist Rolls Over the Mountains (1963) and What the Cherry Blossom Said (1983). He is also known for his literary translations.

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