Azerbaijani and Turkish activists are demanding answers over the death in Istanbul of former ‘prisoner of conscience’ Bayram Mammadov.
Mammadov went missing on 2 May and on 4 May, Turkish police informed friends that he had drowned.
Mammadov, 27, was a prominent government critic who served three years in prison on drug charges that rights groups say were fabricated. He was arrested after defacing a statue of former president Heydar Aliyev with the words ‘Happy Slave Day’ a day before the birthday of the late Aliyev.
Many have questioned the circumstances in which Mammedov died, posting online under the hashtag ‘#BayramaNeOldu’ meaning ‘what happened to Bayram?’. Several small protests have also been held outside Azerbaijani embassies, including those in Turkey and the Netherlands.
There have been calls for Turkish authorities to release CCTV footage from the area.
After the news emerged, several Azerbaijani and Turkish media organisations began circulating unsubstantiated news claiming that Mammedov took his own life or that he ‘died under the influence of drugs’.
Close friends in Turkey insisted that the incident was not a suicide, with some arguing he may have been murdered. They said that Mammedov could swim well and that he was looking forward to studying abroad, having won a Chevening scholarship. He had also reportedly bought a ticket to Baku to see his family on 4 May.
Doubts have also been cast over the Turkish authorities’ willingness to conduct an investigation. When he last entered Turkey, Mammedov was detained by the Turkish Security Service and asked why he had come to Turkey. His friends have stated that they told him that he was a dangerous man.
Elchin Sadigov, a lawyer who has represented Mammedov for several years, said that the Turkish police had said his death was suspicious and that an investigation was in progress.
He said that another lawyer from Turkey was also involved in the investigation and that it should be completed in 2–3 months. Sadigov also said he did not believe Mammedov’s death was a suicide.
Mammadov’s remains were returned to Azerbaijan on 9 May. Police were present at his funeral and told members of his family that they would prevent anyone from filming in the cemetery.
A prisoner of conscience
Bayram Mammadov was a well-known activist in Azerbaijan and was previously a member of NIDA, a pro-democracy youth movement.
Mammadov was an active supporter of workers’ rights and participated in election monitoring during the 2020 Parliamentary elections.
Alongside fellow activist Giyas Ibrahimov, Mammadov was arrested on drug trafficking charges on 9 May 2016 and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Their arrest came a day after the pair wrote ‘Happy Slave Holiday’ on a statue of former Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev.
Officially marked as Flower Day, 10 May is also the birth date of Heydar Aliyev and was previously celebrated quite actively in Azerbaijan. In subsequent years, the date has not been celebrated as festively and police now stand guard over the statue.
Local and international rights groups condemned their persecution by the authorities, with Amnesty International labelling them prisoners of conscience.
Mammadov and Ibrahimov were both released in the 2019 presidential amnesty.
Even after his release, Mammadov was several times detained for short periods, in which he claimed he was tortured.
After winning a Chevening scholarship to study for a master’s degree in England, Mammadov wrote that he was planning to pursue his education in order to be able to return and more effectively fight for his beliefs.