About Simon Maghakyan

Simon Maghakyan was the South Caucasus country specialist at Amnesty International USA from 2008 to 2014.
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Belarusian President: "Better to Be a Dictator Than Gay"

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko © STR/AFP/Getty Images

It sounds like a line from Sacha Baron Cohen’s upcoming comedy The Dictator, but it actually came from a real dictator.

Alexander Lukashenko, the president of ex-Soviet Belarus, said “better to be a dictator than gay” when responding to European criticism of the country’s democratic record. He was alluding to the sexual orientation of some European Foreign Ministers.

President Alexander Lukashenko has been ruling Belarus with an iron fist for almost 18 years. The country’s population is under 10 million and has faced sanctions. Belarus is one of the least democratic in Europe, and is Europe’s only country to have the death penalty. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Sharing the Pain of a War Jon Stewart Doesn't Remember

“I don’t even remember this war,” said comedian Jon Stewart on The Daily Show on February 13, 2012 after his interviewee mentioned the post-Soviet Armenian-Azerbaijani fight for the region of Nagorno-Karabakh in the 1990s, an unresolved conflict that has claimed tens of thousands lives and displaced over a million people.

If Stewart is reading this, he should visit www.ourpain.org to commemorate the victims of the war, especially since February was the worst month of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

February 26, 1988, saw the beginning of a pogrom targeting the Armenian population of the Azerbaijani town of Sumgait, arguably setting the stage for the war. Exactly four years later, Azerbaijani civilians were killed during the Armenian takeover of  the town of Khojaly in the largest massacre of the war. And on February 19, 2004, an Azerbaijani officer, displaced due to the war,  murdered his Armenian counterpart at a NATO training in Europe.


Amnesty International in a Dictator's Zoo?

the dictator - sasha baron cohen

Sasha Baron Cohen as Supreme Leader Shabazz Aladeen

English comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, better known for his character Borat, has a new satirical movie in the works – The Dictator, depicting the leader of the imaginary authoritarian Republic of Wadiya. The latter has just launched its website, and the tourism section mentions Amnesty International:

Many dozens of endangered species can be found caged at the Wadiyan National Zoo, including pandas, white tigers, and Amnesty International officials.

Of course The Dictator is a comedy (see the trailer), but it will presumably highlight – through humor and exaggeration – human rights violations and abuse of power. In that sense, it may be worth watching it, of course after the Wadiyan National Zoo sets Amnesty International officials free so that they can make it to the Annual General Meeting in Denver in late March and continue fighting for a world without abuse of power!

Now, visit our online action center to fight real-life abuses.

Norway: Democratic Defiance Amid Devastation

Tragedies often bring out anger, outburst, and, sometimes, hate. Not so much in Norway. Amid the devastating massacre of dozens, Norway is making sure its soul of tolerance is not stained with blood. Below are top five inspiring quotes by Norwegian officials.

1. Mayor of Oslo: “We shall punish the terrorist, and this will be his punishment: more democracy, more tolerance, more generosity.”

2. Norwegian Prime Minister: “…the answer to violence is even more democracy.”

3. Diplomat Steinar Gil: “Norway will not change. Evil will not prevail.”

4. Norwegian Prime Minister: “With the strongest of all weapons — the free word and democracy — we stake our course for Norway.”

5. Crown Prince of Norway: “Tonight the streets are filled with love. We have chosen to meet hatred with unity. We have chosen to show what we stand for.”

Norway’s message is clear: counter terror with more democracy. As Ernest Hemingway has said, courage is grace under pressure. May the Norwegian victims rest in peace. And may Norway’s democracy prevail.

It's Time for Women's Rights in South Caucasus

Azerbaijan’s pardoning of its most celebrated journalist behind bars and Armenia’s release of all of its jailed oppositions is good news. But both ex-Soviet countries have a terrible record of women’s rights, and things seem to be getting worse.

Zaruhi Petrosian, a victim of domestic violence in Armenia

Armenia, for one, is the only country in the South Caucasus (which is made up of Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia) without legislation on domestic violence. An ongoing trial of a man who murdered his wife is still being dragged while the woman’s mother-in-law, reportedly also involved in the killing, is free.

In November 2008, Amnesty International issued a report on domestic abuse in Armenia stating that more than a quarter of women in Armenia have faced physical violence at the hands of husbands or other family members. Many of these women have little choice but to remain in abusive situations as reporting violence is strongly stigmatized in Armenian society.


Tweet to Free Eynulla Fatullayev

Amnesty supporter participates in Eynulla Fatullayev Twitter campaign

An outspoken Azerbaijani journalist, Eynulla Fatullayev, has long been targeted by a government intolerant of dissent.

Despite a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that found Eynulla wrongfully imprisoned, he has been jailed since 2007 on a series of trumped up charges, including defamation, terrorism and incitement to ethnic hatred.

Fatullayev is not only a prisoner of conscience, but also a defender of human rights and a peace activist. He is one of a few Azerbaijani citizens to call for dialogue with Armenians of the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.


More Arrests in Azerbaijan

While the world’s attention is on the continuing unrest in the Middle East and North Africa, the ex-Soviet republic of Azerbaijan is intensifying its oppression of dissent. In the words of our latest release:


Ahead of a 2 April protest organized by opposition political parties through Facebook, the authorities have today detained at least 11 prominent political activists, echoing the pre-emptive methods they used to suppress protests on 11 and 12 March.

The wave of arrests began on 29 March when Nazim Abbasli from the Azerbaijan Democrat Party was arrested and given five days’ administrative detention.

Today two members of the youth wing of opposition party Musavat, Elchin Salimov and Rauf Mammadov, were arrested today by police and questioned about the 2 April rally. Elchin Samalov was sentenced to seven days administrative detention.

Police have also questioned the family of Musavat member Idris Emiraslanli in an attempt to ascertain his whereabouts.

Deputy Chairman of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (APFP) Ilham Huseynli, APFP members Karim Mehdiyev, Mehdi Mehdiyev and Nemat Aliyev, Classical Popular Front Party member Yagub Babanli, and youth activists Khalid Amanli, Rovshan Nasili, and Tabriz Qasimov were all arrested today and remained in custody this evening.


In the meantime, pro-government figures held a spontaneous rally outside the home of opposition leader Ali Karimli. They chanted that he was a traitor and a homosexual, while police stood by and watched.

While there are a number of detained and imprisoned activists in Azerbaijan, the case of journalist Eynulla Fatullayev stands out for priority campaigning. His articles have landed him charges of terrorism and treason, while he courageously continues his fight behind bars. Please click here for a sample letter to support prisoner of coscience and human rights defender Eynulla Fatullayev.

The Right to a Facebook Status

Facebook status updates and tweets start revolutions and result in arrests. The updates below from my Facebook friends draw a picture of the ongoing and growing protests in the Middle East and North Africa.

From Iran:

Greens are organizing another protest in Iran: February 20th! power to the people of Iran!

From Egypt:

will demonstrate alone in Tahrir. I want my birthday every year! #Feb29

From Bahrain:

The world has turned upside down. Just got a text message from a friend in Gaza asking me if I’m safe.

About Iraq:

My Kurdish friends need to speak up: Kurds protest in Sulaimaniyah [Iraq], ten killed, nine wounded


Follow Libya too…

Updating one’s Facebook status with political information is a human right. Practice yours by sharing Amnesty International’s action to support human rights throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Azerbaijan Doesn't Like Your Facebook Status

Jabbar Savalan has been jailed for two months pending trial on drugs charges © IRFS

The three-week grassroots protest in Egypt that brought down thirty years of autocracy in the land of the pyramids has authoritarian Azerbaijan, among others, worried.

Amnesty International’s latest statement on Azerbaijan – which, ironically, has a statue of Hosni Mubarak in the Egyptian-Azerbaijani Friendship park in capital Baku – details the arrest of a youth activist:

Jabbar Savalan, a 20 19-year-old student, was arrested [on his way home from a political meeting and charged with “possessing narcotics with intent to supply”] in Sumgayit, Azerbaijan, after his Facebook status called for a “Day of Rage” in Freedom Square in Baku, echoing the calls for protest in the Middle East.


On the evening of 5 February he was interrogated without a lawyer, in violation of Article 19 of the Azerbaijani Criminal Procedure Code, and pressured into signing a confession which he has since retracted…. Police reportedly told him that his punishment had already been decided “at the highest level”. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST