Having survived being shot, stabbed, and severely beaten in his home French city of Nantes, well-known Azerbaijani vlogger Mahammad Mirzali says he’s receiving new warnings and that his life is in danger.
The threats have escalated since he gave an interview to the Armenian news outlet CivilNet on May 31 during which the popular social-media opposition activist issued a rare call for peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Mirzali, 27, told the Armenian-based interviewer only months after Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a war over the Nagorno-Karabakh region late last year: “You are Armenian, I am Azerbaijani. Maybe there will be people in our countries who call us traitors. But it doesn’t matter what they say…. Our dialogue [now] is the germination of the first seed [of peace].”
He added: “After all, how long are we going to keep killing each other? It needs to be stopped.”
At another point in the interview, Mirzali compared his own country under authoritarian President Ilham Aliyev, with Armenia.
“To me you Armenians are happy,” he said. “At least you are free. We are crawling. [The Azerbaijani government] lied to us, saying that we won [the war against Armenia]. But where is that victory? Is it [considered] a victory that [we] let the Russian army into Nagorno-Karabakh?”
The online response to the interview has been overwhelmingly positive, but Mirzali believes the interview “infuriated” Aliyev, whose 18-year reign as Azerbaijani president is known for being undemocratic and regularly repressing any opposition or dissent.
Mirzali left Azerbaijan for France in 2016 after coming under increasing pressure from Azerbaijani authorities.
On the ground in Nantes, a series of ominous threats since the interview with CivilNet have Mirzali fearing he may be killed.
The day after the interview was published, a back window of Mirzali’s car was smashed and he says the message “this is for you” written in Turkish on a scrap of paper was left inside. Turkey and Azerbaijan share close cultural and political ties and Ankara was Baku’s main military supporter during last year’s war, which left more than 8,000 dead and led to Azerbaijan recapturing territory from Armenian forces.
The next morning, on June 2, Mirzali told RFE/RL he noticed “an Azerbaijani man speaking on the phone right outside my apartment” about 10 minutes after the vlogger’s parents left him to go shopping. He says the man took photos of him and then “walked to the door of my apartment and attempted to let himself in.”
The stranger fled before French police arrived.
Mirzali posted two tweets about the incidents, writing: “I’m feeling it. Soon enough I’ll be killed by…Aliyev’s regime. If I’m assassinated there’ll be two sides to blame. #Aliyev’s the first of course, and the other’s the #French government’s indifference.”
Mirzali has been critical of the local police, whom he said he does not trust.
While being interviewed by RFE/RL on June 3, the dissident interjected to say he had just received a text message. It was in Azeri and from an unrecognized number that said: “you should behave yourself when I’m around.”
The recent threats come just months after two violent attacks that Mirzali was fortunate to have survived.
Before dawn on October 6, 2020, Mirzali got inside his car in Nantes ready to begin his day as a deliveryman. Suddenly a man appeared from the darkness and tried to open the vehicle’s locked door. The stranger then pulled out a handgun and shot through the window, wounding Mirzali in the shoulder before the activist could drive away to safety.
In March, Mirzali survived a daylight stabbing attack in the center of Nantes that left him with wounds so severe he lost about three liters of blood and underwent six hours of surgery.
The vlogger has 268,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel, Made In Azerbaijan, and some of his videos have racked up millions of views. The videos are often harshly critical of Azerbaijan’s ruling Aliyev family, particularly the president and his wife -- the country’s vice president -- and highlight alleged corruption in the oil-rich Caucasus country.
Jeanne Cavelier, from the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), told RFE/RL that her organization is in close contact with Mirzali.
“He's scared and couldn't sleep [on the night of June 2],” she said. “We strongly support his case, his life is in danger because of his publications. We know the Baku regime's methods, which does not hesitate to harass, kidnap, and silence any critical voice -- even beyond its borders.”
Headquartered in France, RSF vowed in a June 3 article that “If anything happens to blogger Mahammad Mirzali, we will hold Ilham Aliyev personally responsible.”
The vlogger says he has reached out to Human Rights Watch to seek help in relocating but has not received a response.
An unnamed spokesperson for the media watchdog told RFE/RL: “We are aware of the case but have not been in touch with [Mirzali] directly. We do call on the French authorities to ensure his safety and swiftly investigate any attacks against him.”
Asked why he continues to speak out against the Azerbaijani authorities, Mirzali says: “Our country and my family are persecuted by the Azerbaijani government, is it possible to remain silent? I have spoken out so far and will continue to [do so], even if it results in death.”
On May 2, Azerbaijani opposition activist Bayram Mammadov was found dead in Istanbul in an apparent drowning just days before he was due to visit Azerbaijan.
BBC Turkish reported an investigation had been launched. Some Azerbaijani activists are not ruling out foul play and questioned the idea the 25-year-old Mammadov fell into the sea or may have committed suicide.