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Bakhtiyar's Road

In March, Bakhtiyar Hajiyev ’09 marked his 29th birthday from an Azerbaijani jail, charged with dodging compulsory military service. He has remained incarcerated for two months and been denied release from detention while awaiting trial. In a letter smuggled out of his cell, Bakhtiyar claims to have been beaten, threatened with rape, and denied contact with family and (initially) even legal counsel. This treatment has drawn condemnation from U.S. Senators and the State Department to European Parliamentarians to dozens of Harvard faculty members.

In Azerbaijan, politically motivated detentions are tragically normal, but this specific case has stirred international attention due to Bakhtiyar’s status as a well-known dissident, parliamentary candidate, and youth organizer.  It has also stirred me personally, because I know Bakhtiyar, who was in my class at the Kennedy School (MPP ’09), to be a peaceful and honorable man—as well as one who loves his country.

Of course, were there no compulsory military service in Azerbaijan, or had Bakhtiyar previously served, he would probably still be in prison. Hundreds of Azerbaijani dissidents, even simple protesters, have been arrested since Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” first placed Islamic autocrats on guard. The charges used to hold them have ranged from the vague (“sedition,” “behaving dishonorably”) to the outright absurd (“using of abusive words”). Yet with Bakhtiyar the Aliyev Government has cultivated an illusion of legitimacy by focusing on his status as a conscientious objector, which is treated as a criminal offense in Azerbaijan.

The legality behind this charge is wrong. In 2002, Azerbaijan changed its constitution as a necessary concession for membership into the Council of Europe such that a viable alternative to military service would be assured to the conscientious objector. That the Azerbaijani government has failed to honor this provision, does not change the fact that a constitutional right to an alternative exists—and is being illegally denied.

The story of Bakhtiyar’s detention has meaning that extends far beyond Azerbaijani government issues. This Azeri dissident represents something important about what the phrase “Harvard community” means. His story is relevant because of what it says about our own.

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I am Venezuelan, and, following graduation, I decided to return. Like Bakhtiyar, I worked for a weak opposition attempting to legitimize itself under the shadow of entrenched autocracy. Directing entrepreneurial development in one of the country’s worst slums was incredibly challenging—at times rewarding, but more often frustrating. I witnessed corruption on both sides that made me question what I was doing there. I was kidnapped once for ten hours and beaten. I was assaulted and threatened. In far less time than I would have thought possible, I got tired of being scared. I left.

So while I still care deeply about Venezuelan issues, I do so from Chicago, where I get paid to analyze the constitutions of countries I have never visited. This summer, I will be an associate at Goldman Sachs. This is not to say that I regret any of the decisions that have brought me here. I like my life. I do work that I believe is interesting and important. I would likely make the same choices again. And yet, when I think of Bakhtiyar in prison, and consider the similarity of our paths at the outset, the contrast is daunting.

As Harvardians, we are blessed with many options upon graduation. And while it has been said that we can do anything, we cannot do everything. Balances and compromises have to be reached between financial stability, relationships, quality of life factors, and those greater causes that we care about: the ones in the essays we all wrote, and which got us through one of the toughest admissions processes on the planet.

That’s why Bakhtiyar’s story illustrates something noble about Harvard, and about the Kennedy School in particular. At a policy school where students are wooed by the top consulting firms and investment banks, and tapped for the world’s most prestigious government positions, Bakhtiyar opted for the road less travelled. The road that many current students will consider and defer, the one that I started down and turned back from. This road led him to prison. We should each do what we can to help get him out. Not for anything that we owe him necessarily, or even that we owe Harvard, but for what we owe to our own causes and our own stories.

At the Kennedy School, I took a class  requiring me to make a political speech before a roomful of our peers. I talked about Venezuela, taking some easy shots at the regime in exchange for some decent laughs and a decent grade. Bakhtiyar’s speech followed mine. It was long. Hesitantly optimistic in its way, but at the same time expecting no levity and offering none. In recent weeks, I have often thought about this speech, although I can remember very little of its content. I may not have been paying enough attention, or perhaps, knowing so little about Azerbaijan, I could not follow what was said. What I do remember was the disarming earnestness with which he spoke,  his soft-spoken passion and resolve. I hope to  ask Bakhtiyar someday about what he said in class that day, and whether he would still say it now. I like to think that he would.

Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez MPP ’09, a part-time pundit for the ComparativeConstitutions Project and amateur pitiyanqui, is based at the University of Chicago Law School.

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