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Azerbaijani police disperse students appealing for COVID-19 tuition relief

4 June 2020
Students gathered in front of the Ministry of Education on 1 June. Photo: Fargana Novruzova.

The police in Baku have dispersed a small group of students who gathered outside the Ministry of Education to request that exams be cancelled and tuition fees cut due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Around a dozen students had gathered on Monday to submit an appeal to the ministry on behalf of students throughout the country. After three of them were admitted to the building and spoke with officials, police moved in and dispersed them.

In their event description, the organisers called on students to gather ‘without violating the quarantine requirements’. They said the event would not be a protest, but ‘just an appeal’. 

One of the initiative’s organisers, Rustam Ismayilbayli, received 15 days of administrative detention for disobeying police and violating quarantine. Six others were detained and fined between ₼100–₼200 ($60-$120) for quarantine violation.

Two activists who were present on Monday returned the following day to protest the detention and fines and were again taken away by police.

The Baku Police Department stated that they had prevented ‘an attempt to violate social distancing’. 

[Police disperse the students in front of the Ministry of Education. Video: RFE/RFEL]

Several of the students present told OC Media the action was not a protest and that they only wanted to show that their appeal had the support of other students.

Vugar Mirzabayov, a 3rd-year student at the Baku State University told OC Media that they had ensured that those gathered maintained a distance between each other. 

What the students were demanding

The 1 June event was organised by student group Telebe Telebi (‘the student’s demand’). 

Mirzabayov said that their demands included cancelling second-semester exams this year as well as tuition fees for the semester. 

He said they also requested that the ministry return money for the second semester to students who had paid in advance. 

In their event description, the organisers argued that online classes had only been available since April and were not accessible to all students.

‘Thousands of students from different universities are now in a difficult situation due to the demands for tuition fees’, they said.

Zarifa Novruzova, a 4th-year student at Azerbaijan University of Languages who was among the three students to be admitted to the ministry to speak with officials, along with Rustam Ismayilbayli and Allahverdi Hasanov.

‘We spent about 20 minutes there and they [the officials] acted as if they were listening to us’, Novruzova told OC Media.

‘They gave us an application form to write down our names and surnames’, she said, adding they had insisted the request was not for themselves but for ‘thousands of students’.

‘For that matter, Rustam Ismayilbayli studies free of charge’, she said.

Jasarat Valehov, the chief spokesperson for the ministry, stated that the officials informed the three students that the Cabinet of Ministers had taken a decision to hold exams in higher and secondary institutions at the end of the academic year. 

He said that students unable to attend distance learning classes and were not ready to take their exams should apply individually to the ministry before 5 July to be eligible for a full-time 3-4-week teaching programme in August free of charge. 

‘Thus, it was emphasised once again that students who are not ready to participate in the summer exams for any reason are given the right to choose’, he said.

A solidarity rally

On Tuesday, activist Gulnara Mehdiyeva held a protest outside the Education Ministry against Rustambayli’s detention and the fines to the six others. She was joined by another activist, Rabiyya Mammadova; both were also present on Monday.

‘I am ashamed of the Ministry of Education. What they did, demonstrating their fear of 3-5 students and delivering them to the police, is just a shame. As an Azerbaijani citizen, I feel shame for them, and came here to express my shame’, Mehdiyeva told journalists gathered. 

[Gulnara Mehdiyeva in front of the Ministry of Education with a poster saying ‘The demands of a student is not a crime’. Photo: Ulviyya Ali
Police officers confronted the two activists, destroying Mehdiyeva’s poster and attempting to remove journalists covering the event. 

Mehdiyeva told OC Media that the officers told her she was violating quarantine rules by standing where she was.

‘I told them that I did not organise a crowd, that I was wearing a mask, and then they alleged that the journalists [covering the event] could startle pedestrians who may come out to the road.’ 

‘Then the next excuse was that when pedestrians see me, they may be interested and potentially gather around me’, she said.

Nargiz Absalamova, a journalist from Mikroskop Media, told OC Media that police officers did not want her to film Mehdiyeva’s detention. 

‘When I somehow tried to film with my phone, [an officer] grabbed it out of my hands’. 

Journalist Nargiz Absalamova being stopped by a police officer. Photo: Fergana Novruzova

Both Mehdiyeva and Absalamova told OC Media that they were then brought to a police station where they were questioned for two hours and released. 

Elshad Hajiyev, the chief spokesperson for Baku Police Department told news agency APA that during both actions, the participants and journalists filming them had violated quarantine rules. 

He condemned the journalists present saying that ‘in order to effectively protect the health of the population’, journalists should avoid ‘violations of social distancing in public places’.

Student group Telebe Telebi has responded by fundraising to cover the fines issued to participants.

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