For Al Jazeera, I write about the strange, sad case of Ramil Safarov, the Azerbaijani officer who murdered an Armenian officer at a NATO camp in Hungary in 2004, was sentenced to prison in 2006, and was extradited last week to Azerbaijan, where he was given a hero’s welcome. He has developed an enormous internet fan base, aided by Azerbaijan’s policies on open access. An excerpt:
Unlike most authoritarian states, Azerbaijan does not censor the internet. An open internet has proven valuable for Azerbaijani officials, as it allows them to monitor citizens and publicise the punishment of dissenters in the online forums they frequent, deterring sympathisers from further activism. The Safarov case shows that the open internet is also a useful venue for the spread of nationalism rooted in bigotry, vengeance and pain.
Tens of thousands of Azerbaijanis have declared their support for Safarov online. His Facebook page has over 49,000 fans. Supporters praise him in poetry, thanking God and the Aliyev regime for his return….
Advocates of an open internet have long hoped that openness will augur democratic reform. But an open internet is of little benefit to activists living in a state that punishes them for using it. It is also of little consolation when the state is adept at capitalising on public agony. The online embrace of Safarov reflects the heartache of Azerbaijan’s history as well as the ways digital media can strengthen dictatorship. The people spread the cause and the government reaps the glory.
When you cover a conflict like this, you inevitably make some people angry. I want to be clear I have nothing but respect for the Azerbaijani nation, people and culture. I am saddened that Azerbaijan has endured so much tragedy. Unfortunately, the reception of Safarov hints at more tragedy to come.
Read the full article: The axe murderer who became a Facebook hero