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Prominent Talysh activist dies in prison in Azerbaijan

12 November 2020
Fakhraddin Abbasov. Image via Turan.

Prominent Talysh historian and activist Fakhraddin Abbasov has died in prison in Azerbaijan, where he was serving 16 years for treason.

His family has said they were informed on Monday that Abbasov, 63, took his own life in his cell. Abbasov’s burial took place on Tuesday in the Bilaband village of the Lerik District where he was born. 

Many Talysh rights and human rights activists have suggested that Abbasov may have been murdered for his political activities.

On 13 October, Ogtay Asgarov, a Talysh human rights defender and the chair of the committee for the protection of Fakhraddin Abbasov’s rights, published a statement from Abbasov in which he warned that his life was in danger.

‘After I was transferred to the Gobustan prison, representatives from the investigating authority came to “talk to me”. They told me that they were going to create the kind of unbearable conditions for me that I would be pushed to commit suicide. And even if I do not commit suicide, they would make it look like I did it!’, the message said.

‘Even now the threat to my life hanging over me is real. I feel it and expect it at any moment. It is for this reason that I declare the following: The events that will happen to me and result in my death have taken place against my will, I want to tell all my loved ones and supporters that under no circumstances they should believe that I have committed suicide!’

‘Those who are investigating my case have been doing so with infringements against the law from the very beginning. They have done everything they can to prevent my case from being transferred to the European Court of Human Rights, knowing that they would be exposed in the end. Knowing that they will be exposed as a result they have decided that my physical elimination is the final solution!’, he concluded.


His brother Araz Abbasov neither confirmed nor denied the allegations that Abbasov may have been murdered.

‘I am a simple man that doesn't understand politics’, Araz Abbasov told OC Media.

He added that he had never been involved in his brother’s political activity and that this was his business alone. 

He said the family had not come under any pressure from the authorities over Fakhraddin’s activities.

Fakhraddin Abbasov was sentenced to 16 years in prison in February on charges of treason, making calls to insurrection, and incitement of ethnic hatred. He was arrested In 2018 in Russia at the request of the Azerbaijani authorities before being extradited in February 2019. 

Amnesty International said in a statement in June that Abbasov was the victim of ‘politically motivated prosecution’ and was at risk of ‘torture or other ill-treatment’. The group called for his immediate release.

Talysh human rights defenders respond to Abbasov’s death.

Hilal Mammadov, an Azerbaijani journalist and human rights activist and co-chair of the Public Council of Talysh in Azerbaijan (PCTA), confirmed the concerns around Abbasov’s death. He condemned Abbasov’s extradition from Russia and imprisonment in Azerbaijan in the first place calling it unlawful.

‘Prior to Abbasov’s mysterious death, he had informed both his brother and human rights activist Ogtay Asgarov that an assassination attempt had been made against him while asking them not to believe it if news of his suicide was released’, Mammadov told OC Media.

Hilal Mammadov. Image via Metbuat.

Mammadov also said that suicide was against Abbasov’s religious views. 

He linked the timing of Abbasov’s death to the time when Azerbaijani forces took control of the city of Shusha. 

‘In a statement issued as PCTA, we also stated that the responsible agencies should immediately investigate and respond to this issue’, he concluded. 

Ismail Shabanov, President of the Talysh Federal Cultural Autonomy of Russia told OC Media that it was clear to him that Fakhraddin Abbasov was killed in custody. 

‘He warned his family 10–15 days ago that he would be killed’, Shabanov said.

He also said that it was symbolic that Abbasov was allegedly assassinated on the day the Azerbaijani army entered Shusha. ‘They only do this to their enemies. A special day is only set in order to kill enemies’. 

Shabanov said that Abbasov’s treatment showed that the Azerbaijani government had a ‘deep hatred’ for Talysh intellectuals. He also warned that such issues also created hatred among Talysh people. 

‘We also call on the Talysh people to be more vigilant in protecting their rights’, said Shabanov.

Rahim Shaliyev, a Talysh activist and journalist, told OC Media that a number of Talysh intellectuals had faced serious life-threatening repression. 

‘The fact that Abbasov was found guilty of allegedly going to Armenia is an imitation of the Azerbaijani government’, said Shaliyev. He said that pro-governmental media outlets had tried to legitimise Abbasov’s arrest under the pretext of his visit to Armenia.

He cited the death in prison in 2009 of the head of the Talysh Cultural Centre in Baku and editor of the Tolishi Sado (the voice of Talysh) newspaper, Novruzali Mammadov.

Shaliyev said that Mammadov case was similar in some ways, as both were scholars of Talysh language and history.

He said that grammar and textbooks compiled by Novruzali Mammadov, as well as a book on grammar of the Talysh language written by Abbasov, were important resources for the Talysh language. 

‘The Azerbaijani government is trying to root out scientific research on the Talysh language and history by arresting and killing these people’, stated Shaliyev.   

The penitentiary service of the Gobustan Prison, where Abbasov was being held, declined to give a comment remotely.

The Talysh people in Azerbaijan

The Talysh people are concentrated in southern Azerbaijan and northern Iran. In Azerbaijan, they are largely concentrated in Lankaran, Astara, Masalli, Lerik, and Bilasuvar districts. 

The Talysh language is part of the Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family, unlike Azerbaijani, which is closely related to Turkish. In Azerbaijan, the majority of Talysh people are bilingual, speaking both Talysh and Azerbaijani. 

UNESCO’s list of endangered languages identified 1 million Talysh speakers and lists the language as vulnerable. This classification means that most children speak the language but it may be restricted to certain domains.

According to the 2009 census in Azerbaijan, there are  112,000 Talysh people in the country. However, many Talysh activists have claimed that the actual number might be much higher.

In his book the Historical Dictionary of Azerbaijan, Zaur Gasimov, a Research Fellow at the Max Weber Foundation, wrote that minority groups in Azerbaijan frequently face difficulties in claiming their cultural rights. 

He indicated that the Talysh were frequently associated with secessionist rhetoric, especially since the outbreak of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. 

Gasimov linked this to a proclamation of the Talysh–Mughan Autonomous Republic by Alikram Humbatov in June 1993. The entity lasted for only three months.

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