Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Free Thought University (AFU) in Azerbaijan shut down [UPDATED]

There was a lot of outrage on my Facebook feed today. Free Thought University (Azad Fikir Universiteti [AFU] ) in Baku, Azerbaijan was shut down by the authorities. Here is the initial update from the University's page on FB:
Dear friends! Today in the morning, the representatives of the Chief Prosecutor’s Office arrived at the Free Thought University without any prior information, sealed the door and closed the office. We are trying to find out reasons at the moment. Because the office of AFU is shut down by the authorities, we are unable to continue our weekly lectures and other events. Therefore we have to postpone events at AFU for unknown period. The lecture about translation problems in Azerbaijani literature scheduled for tomorrow – 11 April has been postponed as well. We will update you on all new information. Please follow us for more news.
A long-time enthusiast and advocate of freedom and peace in the region, Onnik Krikorian, wrote that "[...] Azad Fikir was really quite exemplary in the South Caucasus and was something that Armenia and Georgia could do with, let alone Azerbaijan."

Image from KP on Facebook

Another expert on the region, Katy Pearce, provided not just a lament, but a concrete set of actions Americans could take to help. So, dear American citizens reading this post, if you care about freedom of speech in a faraway and troubled region, please do pay special attention to the following [reposting with permission]:

Things are getting rough in Azerbaijan.
People are being arrested or interrogated daily, FREQUENTLY for things that they said or did on social media. Social media is really all that is left for free expression in Azerbaijan, but it is so heavily monitored that online discussion has offline consequences.
Today things got worse though.
A few years ago a bunch of really nice, smart and motivated Azerbaijanis started a new idea to address the lack of interesting and democratic education in the Azerbaijani university system. Free Thought University or Azad Fikir Universiteti (AFU) does lectures, open to the public, in what I guess you could call an American style format -- students can ask questions, lecturers are free to speak about what they want, etc.
Over the last few years AFU has grown from an idea to an institution! The lectures are well attended (sometimes in the hundreds) and the online lectures are viewed a lot. They're also the most engaged with Facebook site in Azerbaijan.
AFU is one of the few physical spaces where Azerbaijanis have some space to breath.
And today, the chief prosecutor's office came to the AFU office and sealed their door, effectively closing them down. (The chief prosecutor's office is sort of like a public prosecutor in the American legal system, but with more far-reaching responsibilities, such as handling investigations otherwise performed by branches of the police. Imagine sort of like the FBI.)
What a shame. This organization is not political and it is open to everyone.
So what is to be done?

- Pay attention to what's going on in Azerbaijan -- which can be really difficult to do. One easy way is Azerbaijan-24 -- a quick Facebook status every day that tells you what happened in the previous 24 hours.

- Join this Facebook group for updates on activists being arrested: Support Azerbaijani Activists in Administrative Detention.

- Contact your elected officials and tell them your concerns. Human Rights House Network has some nice example letters.

- When AFU gets back on its feet, consider supporting them financially. They've previously been funded by US and UK foreign aid.

In fact, in 2010, AFU was the recipient of the first annual Ambassadorial Award for Freedom of Expression over the Internet given by the United States Mission to the OSCE. One would hope, the US still cares...

UPDATE [4.11.2013 - 9:20 AM EST]: I just saw that the US Embassy in Baku has reacted to the AFU's closure and that Ambassador Morningstar has event met with representatives of the University earlier today. Here's the statement from Facebook [nothing on the official Embassy website or Twitter as of yet]:

Ambassador Morningstar Speaks to Free Thought University.
Following news that authorities had closed Free Thought University’s facility yesterday, U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Richard Morningstar met the group at a hotel to give his previously scheduled speech.
“I am honored to be here,” the ambassador said while praising the work done by Free Thought University. He pointed out that the organization had received the first “Ambassadorial Award for Freedom of Expression over the Internet from the U.S. Mission to the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe in 2010” for its innovative use of new media to promote democratic reforms, civil society, independent media, human rights, and the rule of law.
The ambassador noted that the embassy often takes visiting officials to Free Thought University because it offers such a delightful forum for thoughtful, engaging discussion—“the kind of thing one finds at any good university campus” he said.
Before taking questions, the ambassador said, “I am a friend of Azerbaijan, and I admire its achievements since it regained independence in 1991, but I have been troubled by the government’s reaction to protests this year, including the arrest and interrogation of youth active in protests and in civil society movements. I was particularly disappointed to hear that authorities closed Free Thought University’s office just last night.”
“I believe that respect for peaceful protests, independent and transparent courts, and government engagement with citizens, especially its young citizens, to address their legitimate concerns are the best and most effective ways democratic governments can secure their fundamental stability,” Ambassador Morningstar said.
The ambassador stressed that Azerbaijan is a strong and valued partner of the United States in the areas of regional and energy security, but he noted that they are part of a larger relationship that includes democratic and economic reform.
“U.S. support for democratic development worldwide reflects our values but is also based on pragmatic considerations.” Ambassador Morningstar said in closing. “As former Secretary Clinton said during one of her visits to Baku, our closest relationships are with democratic states that respect the full range of human rights of their citizens. We want and need strong partners to deal with complex challenges around the world, and the strong democracies are our strongest partners.

This is a great start. But will they do more?

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