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Azerbaijani opposition rocked by domestic violence allegations

24 September 2019
Fuad Gahramanli (left) and a picture of his wife (right) released by women's rights activist Gulnara Mehdiyeva.

Azerbaijan’s opposition Popular Front Party has been dealt a major blow after the daughters of the party’s deputy chair and his wife accused him of physically abusing them.

Fuad Gahramanli’s daughter, Seljan Yaghmur, first made the allegations against her father in a lengthy Facebook post on Thursday. On Friday, after the post was widely shared on Facebook, Gahramanli resigned.

Reactions to the allegations amongst opposition supporters have been split, with some praising Yaghmur for her courage while others, including party head Ali Karimli, have insisted it was a private family affair. Some went so far as to accuse Yaghmur of discrediting her family and the opposition movement.

In her post, Yaghmur wrote that Gahramanli, ‘who talked from a tribune about human and women’s rights, broke his daughter’s knee and his wife’s fingers at home’.

‘I know that even progressive people will condemn me for publishing this [saying] “because he is your father”. Because I should erase from my memory how my father broke my mother’s fingers — because he fed me, raised me, etc.’

Yaghmur wrote that her father manipulated her mother into staying with him, including with blackmail.

‘An unimaginable atmosphere of hell reigned in the house of a person who was talking about rights; those are the things that should be known about the family of a politician’.

She also wrote that the violence in their family was an open secret among the opposition, as her mother would often appear at public functions with visible bruises.

She wrote that women in the party who were aware of the abuse told her mother to be ‘a smart woman’ and to keep silent, urging her not to ruin Gahramanli’s reputation and to think of the political consequences of going public.

Yaghmur said that Ali Karimli, the chair of the Popular Front Party, had played the role of ‘family psychologist’.

‘He explained to my mother that men are like this, that she needs to endure it and think about the future, that she has children’, she wrote. ‘[He would say:] “Anyway, what are you going to do after a divorce in your 40s?” ’

Yaghmur wrote that her mother had recently filed for divorce as she and her sister had both now reached the age of majority and could no longer be legally separated from their mother

She ended with the hashtag #metoo, referencing the global movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault.

How the allegations emerged

Yaghmur’s sister, Sanay Yaghmur, wrote that the allegations were true on her own Facebook page shortly after, but later deleted the text leaving only the hashtags #QadınaŞiddətəSon (‘Stop violence against women’), #Susma (‘Don’t be silent’) and #MetooAzerbaijan.

Yaghmur’s mother, Zumrud Yaghmur, also confirmed her daughter’s story in an interview with journalist Sevinj Osmangizi.

She said did not want to become a ‘public figure’ but wanted to remain a ‘mother for her daughters’.

‘I will defend my rights […] I will defend my principles’, Zumrud said, adding that she still stood by the Popular Front Party. ‘I will also defend [the party] until I stop believing that they can make changes in this country.’

The following day, she defended her daughter in a statement on Facebook.

‘Those who attempt to present Seljan as mentally sick — know that I stand in front of you. Seljan is neither sick nor a liar’, she wrote.

In another interview on Monday, she was emphatic that she had evidence to prove that Gahramanli abused her and her children, ‘for example, pictures of the plastered broken leg of Sanay or my plastered broken hand’.

‘Trying to start a war against our national identity with feminist thinking’

After Yaghmur’s post first began to be shared, Gahramanli took to Facebook to deny the allegations, claiming that his daughter’s Facebook account had been hacked. He deleted the post shortly after publishing it.

On Friday, Gulnara Mehdiyeva, a veteran gender equality activist, shared photos on Facebook of Yaghmur’s mother, Zumrud Yaghmur, with bruises on her face and body.

Gahramanli announced he was resigning as deputy chair of the party several hours later, in order to prevent the ‘cunning intentions of those who want to tarnish the reputation of the Popular Front Party’.

He said his family had had a ‘short-term conflict’ 4–5 years ago, which caused his daughters ‘psychological trauma’. He said that her post was an emotional reaction to that trauma, and wrote that he ‘regretted what happened’.

On Sunday, Gahramanli wrote another post elaborating on the ‘incident’, claiming he threw a saucer from a table which ‘accidentally hit my daughter’s leg’. He stated that his behaviour did not merit his daughter’s ‘horror movie’ description. ‘In general, I not only never beat my children, but I didn’t even touch a hair on their heads.’

The outrage, he wrote, had been fanned by those who ‘feel an inferiority complex’ and were ‘trying to start a war against our national identity with feminist, anarchist, neoliberal, cosmopolitan, and anti-nationalist ways of thinking’.

The Popular Front closes ranks

Ali Karimli, the chair of the Popular Front party, took to Facebook several hours after Yaghmur’s post to defend Gahramanli.

He pointed to Gahramanli’s position ‘fighting the regime’ which he said was ‘taking revenge’ on him by using the situation to end his political career. He added that Gahramanli ‘shouldn’t be left alone in the face of the regime’s below-the-belt attacks’.

Gahramanli, a veteran political activist, has in the past served time in prison on what rights groups insist were fabricated charges.

In reference to Yaghmur’s claim he personally knew of the alleged abuse, Karimli wrote that he had proposed to Gahramanli and his wife that they resolve their conflict, which he said happened 4–5 years ago, on the basis of ‘mutual respect and concessions’, or to end it in a ‘civil way’.

‘I didn’t forcibly make them stay together. They accepted this decision themselves’, he said.

He insisted he was against any kind of violence, both against women and men. ‘I don’t accept the argument that it happens in every house’.

He said that the Popular Front Party was not created to ‘regulate family relationships of anyone (even its members)’, but added that family values were very important for his party.

Karimli also claimed that the Popular Front Party had more women in leadership positions than any other party in the country.

On Sunday, Yalchin Abdullayev, a prominent member of the Popular Front Party, shared a post on Facebook urging Azerbaijanis to protect their daughters from feminism, arguing it led to ‘lesbianism, prostitution, leading an easy lifestyle (drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, swearing etc)’ and eventually to human trafficking.

‘Violence may not be justified by traditions’

Since the allegations were first made public, the Popular Front Party, and Karimli in particular, have come under fire from some opposition figures and political activists.

Isa Gambar, the chair of the opposition Musavat Party, condemned Gahramanli in a post on Facebook, saying domestic violence as ‘an issue that affects all of us’.

Gambar was critical of those who had reacted by claiming ‘the family is an internal issue’. ‘It is necessary to put an end to this [attitude]’, he said.

‘Every woman who raises her voice without fear of the reaction from society, from the family, is courageous. We need more than this courage. Do not hesitate to raise your voice against violence.’

Several prominent oppositional voices called for Karimli to resign, including the founder of independent news site Meydan TV, Emin Milli, youth activist Nahid Jafarov, and journalist Ogtay Hajimusali.

Government supporters including ex-speaker of Parliament Rasul Guliyev and ruling party MP Javid Osmanov also called for his resignation.

However, government critics were far from unanimous in condemning Gahramanli.

Eldar Zeynalov, the head of Baku-based rights group the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan, said he was ambivalent about the case.

He told OC Media that while violence could not be justified by traditions or family values, ‘on the other hand, there is the right to personal and family life — both for the daughter and the father.’

‘This implies, among other things, the preservation of family secrets’, he said. ‘Even the courts on such sensitive issues are usually held in closed meetings if one of the parties wishes so.’

Zeynalov also said that calling Gahramanli a criminal is, for the moment, unjustified.

‘There is a presumption of innocence, no one has cancelled it, and before a crime is proven by a court decision that has entered into force, it is incorrect to call someone a criminal’, he said. ‘Moreover, the alleged victim herself makes allegations not on a criminal, but rather on a moral plane.’

Zeynalov pointed out that the question of court proceedings may be moot, as the case would likely fall outside the statute of limitations.

Upcoming opposition rally

The National Council of Democratic forces of Azerbaijan, a coalition of opposition groups, has scheduled a protest on 28 September demanding free and fair elections, the release of political prisoners, and the resolution of social problems.

Karimli stated that he had officially notified the Baku Executive Power about their intention to holding the rally on 13 September.

Despite the rally not yet being authorised by the authorities and the location not being specified, calls to participate in it have been widely shared online.

In his Facebook post, Karimli urged people not to allow the scandal around Gahramanli to affect their will to participate.

‘Any objective or subjective problem that we face, obstacles that have been created, should not distract us from our ultimate goal — the struggle for freedom we have with the regime. The regime is pleased that what happened in Fuad’s family is holding the 28 September rally back. Let us not bring happiness to the corrupt, the torturers, and those who destroy 100,000 families with their policies’, he wrote.

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