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Activists occupy ‘historic’ building in Baku to prevent demolition

The building is a former Molokan church (Leyli Gafarova)

Around 200 people have occupied a building in Baku’s Nasimi District to prevent it from being demolished. Activists say they will not leave the former Molokan church and site of Azerbaijan’s first radio station until it is included in the Ministry of Culture’s list of protected historic buildings.

The building is currently being rented by the Salaam Cinema.

One of the protesters, Murad Nabiyev, told OC Media that on 6 May, a representative of the Nasimi District Executive power came to the cinema and examined the building. He said that an hour later, a representative of the landlord, along with the local authorities, also visited the site, saying that they had a decree to demolish the building.

‘He told us that he has the bill of sale and owns this building. He didn’t name the exact reason why we should leave. Salaam Cinema by contract should leave the premises on 15 June, as it was agreed, and we asked him to wait till that date. But he started being aggressive and attacked Ilkin [the Cinema’s director]’, Nabiyev said.

Leyli Gafarova, who alongside Ilkin Huseynov founded the Salaam Cinema, told OC Media that the main goal of the protestors was the inclusion of the building in the state’s list of historic buildings.

‘We know that if we leave the building now, they could just destroy the interior, saying later that the building was in a critical condition, though it is not. We will stay here until we achieve the inclusion of the building on the list’, Gafarova said.

She added that during the incident, the Salaam Cinema had been holding a seminar by director Robert Roumbout organised as part of the 3d IMAGINE Euro Tolerance Festival, which was supported by the Ministry of Culture.

Fariz Huseynov, a spokesperson for State Service for the Protection, Development and Restoration of Cultural Heritage told the BBC’s Azerbaijani service that ‘if the building is put on the list of historical monuments, it will be protected by the state. If it is listed, there will be no demolition work, even if the building is privately owned.’

Another of the protesters, architect Leyla Musayeva, told OC Media that the authorities had turned off the electricity in the building, smashed chairs, and tried to break the stairs. According to her, the landlord’s representative hit the cinema’s director, Ilkin Huseynov, and several other activists, pulling their hair, striking them on the face, and kicking them.

Representatives of the landlord entering the building. (Meydan TV)

Zibeyda Zakariyyayeva, a lawyer and member of the Bar Association of Azerbaijan, told OC Media that this use of violence was completely unlawful.

A spokesperson for the Nasimi District Executive Power told journalists that they asked the protesters to leave the building because of its condition. ‘There is no talk of demolition, only reconstruction work. We will inform you by an official notification’, Meydan TV cited them as saying.

The Executive Power of Nasimi District did not respond to OC Media’s requests for comment.  

Later that day, activists wrote an open letter to Vice President Mehriban Aliyeva asking for her help protecting the building.

‘We also wrote letters to other relevant institutions, not only to the Vice President. We are trying to use all possible sources that could help to prevent the demolition’, Gafarova said.

The landlord and his representative

According to Gafarova, the Salaam Cinema has been renting the building since January. She said that for several months, they never saw the landlord himself, only his representatives, who told them the landlord lived abroad.

‘Though we prepared a legal contract to take to the notary, we were not able to do this without the landlord. We knew beforehand that the building was going to be demolished, the representatives of the landlord told us, and we took this risk to preserve the place. We signed a contract till June 2019 with the real estate agency that helped us find the place, and paid the whole sum in advance’, she said.

Gafarova said that they rented two floors of the building which were in a poor state of repair. She said they reconstructed the first floor and connected it to the water system to make a cafe there.

According to her, during the Novruz holidays on 20–24 March, representatives of the landlord entered and demolished the floor.

Protesters inside the Salaam Cinema (Aziz Karimov)

‘We saw the landlord only then, in March. We asked them to repay us for the reconstruction costs, but they refused, and we spoke to the police. When Ilkin asked the landlord for his number, which was needed by the police, he gave the number and announced to us that we have to leave by the end of May’, Gafarova said.

According to her, the owner’s representatives later came to the cinema several times demanding that they leave the building.

According to lawyer Zibeyda Zakariyyayeva, the allegation that employees and supporters of the Salaam Cinema are inside the building illegally is not entirely true.

‘No one can enter the building without the permission of the renter’, she said, noting that the cinema had already occupied the building for several months.

‘A unique monument’

Elchin Aliyev, an architect with a PhD in art history, told OC Media that it was important to preserve the building as it was a ‘unique monument of Azerbaijani architecture, which was built in 1913’. He noted that ‘until recently’ it was owned by the Ministry of Transport, Communications and High Technologies of Azerbaijan.

‘I think that in this issue it is necessary to separate the emotional side from the legal one’, Aliyev said. ‘Of course, in my soul, I am on the side of the young people and I think that it is the best way to use this monument of architecture as a centre of culture. However, everything must be done in a legal manner, and if today the representatives of the rightful owner demand they leave the building, they must obey.’

‘Now, if after this we see that the building is threatened with real demolition, then I myself will be the first to defend it. I hope that young professionals will be there too’, he said.

Aliyev said he was certain that the matter would not come to the demolition of the building.

‘Neither the leadership of the country nor the public will allow it. The principled position of the new leadership of the Committee for Urban Planning and Architecture, in which not a single monument of architecture has been demolished in recent months, also inspires hopes of saving the building’.

According to Aliyev, large-scale restoration work was being carried out on the facades of historic buildings throughout the central quarters of Baku, including the area the building is located.

‘It is possible that a representative of the Executive Power of the Nasimi District is right, and similar work is planned for this building’, he said.

Lawyer Zibeyda Zakariyyayeva said that statements that the building was in a critical condition must be confirmed by an appropriate document.

‘To maintain the critical condition of the building, a special commission should be set up which could accept a decision on the condition of the building. Yes, the building is not in the list of historic buildings, but it is already more than 100 years old, and the Salaam Cinema already made a request to be added to the list’, she said.

‘Without the admission of any decision or documents the statements on the condition of the building have no power’, Zakariyyayeva added.

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