Harvard Graduate in Prison

This week, Bakhtiyar Hajiyev will spend his 30th birthday in one of Azerbaijan’s most notorious prisons. The Kennedy School alum has been named a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International and a political prisoner by Human Rights Watch. He likely won’t be freed for another year.

Why isn’t Harvard doing more to help?

When Bakhtiyar Hajiyev entered the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in 2007, he had already earned a BA in applied mathematics and economic cybernetics, and a master’s in information technology from top Azerbaijan universities. He had addressed the UN General Assembly as the official Youth Representative for Azerbaijan, and led a team of Azeri youth to the International Junior Science Olympiad.

At Harvard, he excelled in the sorts of courses you’d expect from a future public servant, ranging from leadership development to economics and policy analysis. He interned at the National Democratic Institute and worked as a consultant at the World Bank, both in Washington. When he graduated from Harvard in 2009 with a master’s degree in public policy, he had the type of resume that glistens to the blue-chip consultants regularly recruiting on campus.

But Bakhtiyar had taken the Kennedy School’s mission of the public interest to heart. Instead of easing into a well-paid private sector job, he decided to leave the comfort of Cambridge and return to his native country with the goal of making it a better place. The challenge for Bakhtiyar was this meant returning to Azerbaijan.


Located in the Caucasus region of Eurasia, Azerbaijan is bounded by Russia, Georgia, and Iran. It’s hard to find on a map, and if you’re not from the region, chances are you’ll never have a reason to visit. Like other former Soviet republics, its efforts to democratize have been marred by deeply-rooted corruption. Since a successful military coup in the early 1990s, Azeri elections have fallen well short of international standards. The government retains notoriously aggressive control of the press and the freedom of assembly has fared no better.

This was the political climate Bakhtiyar faced when he returned to Azerbaijan to run for parliament in 2010. As an independent candidate, he championed increased government accountability and democratic reform, finishing third among a field of 14 candidates in a highly contentious race. He lost, perhaps not unexpectedly, to two government loyalists. The allegedly unlawful tactics used to defeat him have been presented to the European Court of Human Rights for review.

Undeterred, Bakhtiyar found inspiration in the Arab Spring and organized an online campaign calling for peaceful protests of the government. Almost immediately after this campaign went public, the government arrested Bakhtiyar and charged him with evading military service in violation of Azerbaijan’s conscription law, despite his status as a conscientious objector and a well-known constitutional provision granting the legislature authority to permit alternative forms of service.

While Azerbaijan had promised to enact such an alternative service law more than a decade before as a condition of its acceptance into the Council of Europe in 2001, the legislature has since failed to act and the government continues to selectively enforce conscription, as Bakhtiyar found out the hard way.

Considering the curious timing of Bakhtiyar’s arrest and the government’s long record of stifling dissent, a number of human rights organizations—including Freedom Now, co-chaired by Bishop Desmond M. Tutu—have protested Bakhtiyar’s conviction. In May 2011, Bakhtiyar was sentenced to the maximum term of two years in prison.

In a show of solidarity, hundreds of Harvard students and alumni recently signed a petition calling for Bakhtiyar’s release. This week, a dozen professors will join them. But Harvard University has failed to officially condemn Bakhtiyar’s arrest and conviction, or leverage its weight on the international stage to raise awareness about his case.

This year alone, there are nearly 4,200 international students studying at Harvard. More than 50,000 international alumni live worldwide. With many of these students hailing from politically unstable countries, like Myanmar and Uzbekistan, Bakhtiyar likely won’t be the last Harvard alum imprisoned for espousing the ideals of democracy. This is precisely why his case is so important.

Bakhtiyar represents the Harvard graduates of tomorrow who will attempt to answer John Kennedy’s famous call to action–often at great risk and sacrifice to themselves and their families. While President Kennedy would have expected nothing less, he almost certainly would have expected his alma mater to do more to defend these graduates in times of trial. These men and women should have the confidence of knowing the same institution that nurtured their ideals as students will fully support them as leaders when they strike out to effectuate meaningful change in the world.

To this end, Harvard President Drew Faust should draw a clear line in the sand by calling upon the Azerbaijani government to immediately and unconditionally release Bakhtiyar from prison. In doing so, she will send a strong signal of support to future graduates considering courageous paths like Bakhtiyar’s, while reaffirming Harvard’s commitment to advancing the public interest around the world.

Federico E. Cuadra Del Carmen is an MPA student at HKS ’13. Miguel T. Espinoza is an MPA student at HKS ’13. Sushma S. Sheth is an MPA student at HKS ’12.