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Dissidents path: From Soviet camp to Azerbaijan prison

29 January 2020

Today, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in Strasbourg will discuss reported cases of political prisoners in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani human rights activists Leyla and Arif Yunus spent over eighteen months in prison in Azerbaijan where they were subjected to physical and psychological torture. They recently published a memoir about their years as Soviet dissidents and human rights defenders. This is an excerpt from the new English language translation of this book.

Leyla and Arif Yunus launch their book in Vienna on 15 November 2018

Arif Yunus. A Prisoner of solitary confinement of National Security

 …At midday on 7 August 2014, they brought me to the Ministry of National Security. Two warders led me into the detention centre, constantly repeating, “Look straight ahead; don’t say a word!” There was a menacing silence in the corridor and the air smelled stale.

As I walked along the carpet runner, I saw nothing to either side but one cell door after another. Next to a door marked No 5, I was ordered to stop: “Face the wall!” They led me into a small cell with a barred window. Behind me the heavy door swung shut, the key turned in the lock and I was on my own.

It was as quiet as the grave. I was alone with my thoughts. That was a strange moment. All my adult life I had been catastrophically busy. I had learned to make efficient use of what time there was for preparing research papers and conference presentations and reading new publications. After the collapse of theSoviet Union, my duties and concerns greatly increased as I became a public figure. There was no time left, even to rest or relax.

My detention in solitary confinement changed all that. It was as if my rapid existence had come to a halt. Now there was time – between interrogation and torture, at least – to think and remember. That came later, however. On my first day in solitary confinement at the MNS Detention Centre I did all I could to chase away thoughts of my wife Leyla who had been arrested shortly before me and of our daughter Dinara who was in exile in the Netherlands.

Psychological torment

On the first day I had not yet recovered from the drama of my arrest. I was still possessed by memories and emotions, thinking, arguing, hoping and getting angry. Emotions overpowered me and somewhat softened the pain of arrest and solitude.

The following day things were different. I had gotten used to my cell and was well aware of my solitude. I was alone with my thoughts and they depressed me. I tried to exercise, but the cell was too small. The second bed got in the way. I started pacing to and fro across the cell. There were four short paces from the door to the opposite wall. I walked with my arms behind my back and when I reached the wall I turned, as if on parade, and walked back. I did not walk quickly or slowly, but maintained a rhythmic pace, counting one, two, three, four … This went on for several hours. I became some kind of mindless pendulum.

When I grew tired, I sat on the bed and resumed my study of the cell. Again and again, however, thoughts of my wife and my daughter returned, waiting to ambush me as soon as the opportunity arose. To distract myself, I resumed walking or tried to hear voices from other cells. Time passed. I sat on the bed, tormented by thoughts. Sometimes I got up and tried to walk about, and then sat down again. Twice I was disturbed: the hatch opened and they gave me food. Then it was silent again and I became engrossed in distressing thoughts about my loved ones. As a result, my head started aching badly. Clearly, my blood pressure had gone up. I banged on the door and asked for the doctor.

“When it’s necessary, the doctor will see you. You just sit quiet now, or we’ll give you a beating and put you in the punishment cell,” came the brutal reply. I didn’t have my pills with me. (Even if a prisoner has to take medicine, he is not allowed to keep it in his cell. It is placed in a cellophane bag, hanging outside the door.)

Evening came. It was impossible to find out the time. I had no watch and the radio wasn’t working. The window in the cell was high and told me nothing. Even the sky was not visible. There wasn’t a mosque or church nearby, so I could not guess the hour from calls to prayer or church bells. Only the hatch, which opened three times for food, gave an idea of the passing of time – that and the warders’ cries “Get up!” at 6 am and “Lie down!” at 10 pm. Once again, the revulsion of using another’s unwashed bedding; the strong light beating in my eyes; thoughts of my loved ones; and tormenting attempts to fall asleep.

The third day of total isolation was the worst. It felt as if I was on a small, uninhabited island with no one near, no birds overhead or even fish that I could watch. Utter loneliness and emptiness. I was in a full-blown psychological crisis.

It was all as the day before – tormenting thoughts about my loved ones, mechanical pacing back and forth, attempts to do some exercises and to tell the time – but now there were new elements in my existence. I began taking an interest in food or, to be precise, in the hatch which, three times a day, opened and gave me something to eat. It was not hunger. That was still far away: not enough time had passed. My gaze was fixed so long on the hatch that, suddenly, I realised I was like a laboratory animal, hoping that it would open and provide something pleasant. It was the first alarm bell, a sign of dependence.

It got worse. Like confirmed smokers who find it hard-going without a cigarette (how glad I was that I had never smoked!), I desperately wanted to speak to someone. It didn’t matter what about or with whom. An investigator or a warder would do. Even the most taciturn person must occasionally exchange a word with someone else. We have the gift of language to converse and communicate. A lack of contact with others, even warders, is a form of torture that makes the head ache. To rid myself of that headache I decided to think of something else. Again, I recalled all the incidents of my arrest and imprisonment. I reviewed every word and conversation; I remembered each moment, no matter how insignificant. Suddenly, I found that I was talking to myself. Worse, I was no longer sure it was a real incident I was discussing or something I imagined. This discovery was an unpleasant shock. My mind was playing tricks on me.

That was not the last unpleasant surprise. I started experiencing visual and auditory hallucinations. Sitting on the bed, I listened attentively. In solitary your hearing becomes especially acute. I clearly heard a two-way radio, hissing near the cell; a barely audible click told me the warder had come to the door. I heard his steps immediately, even if he crept up in slippers to avoid making a sound. I not only heard but could visualise him moving aside the metal disc and, leaning close to the peephole, observing me. I could not see the warder but, like a blind person, I heard him very clearly. At times, it seemed, I could almost hear the beating of his heart.

Then I began listening to other sounds. What we think of as silence in the normal world, even absolute silence, does not appear so in a cell, especially in solitary confinement. There a person can really hear the silence! During those days there was such a loud ringing in my ears that I could not make out whether I was having problems with my hearing or if there was a loud noise in the corridor and neighbouring cells. I tried, painfully, to understand whether I was hearing real noises or merely imagining them.

And how lightly I slept! I was like a dog that wakes and leaps up in an instant if it hears even a distant rustling. Again, I did not know whether the cries and noise I heard were real – was someone really being beaten in another cell? Was someone unwell, was someone talking, was it something else? – or was it all just my imagination? There is nothing worse than this graveyard silence in solitary confinement. The silence of which we dream at liberty as the most perfect relaxation becomes in solitary confinement a horrifying torment that can easily drive one crazy. Yet I not only heard sounds and voices. I tried to work out how many prisoners were held in neighbouring cells, who they were, what they looked like, how old they were and what they were doing.

A new misfortune followed, a melancholy that was not only burdensome but crushed my soul. Each day was like its predecessor. In solitary confinement it was as if time stood still and the days repeated themselves, as in the American comic film “Groundhog Day”. To change the situation, I again studied the cell. For hours on end, I gazed at the walls, studying cracks and other features. At times, I thought I saw figures moving on the wall or on the floor.

Once, I noticed a mosquito on the ceiling and a fly on the wall. I began to observe them, trying to determine their next movements, and started to look on them as my cellmates. At which point I realised that something bad was happening to me. “Stop! You must do something urgently,” I told myself, “or you’ll have serious mental problems!”

How to survive in solitary

I like to analyse things – I find it helps me in my work and in life. Now I started analysing everything that had happened over three days of solitary confinement. I understood that the conditions of my imprisonment were causing me hallucinations and other problems 

I realized that thoughts of Dinara and Leyla were causing my depression. At times they made me ready to beat my head against the wall. That was how I arrived at rule Number One: I took a very difficult decision and categorically forbade myself to think about my daughter and wife, and if they came to mind, I quickly made myself think about something or someone else. My dearest ones would be devastated if something happened to me. Therefore, I must survive for their sakes. And not just survive but try to regain my freedom. If I could not restrain myself and remembered them, then those thoughts should only be pleasant and cheerful.

To succeed I must focus my attention on the positive. It was essential to send positive information to my brain and drive out any negative thoughts that might lower my spirits. I began to apply this principle more widely. I was alone in the cell. Was that bad? No, it was excellent: my cell-mate might be an informer, he might be stupid or mentally unbalanced and that would make me tense or irritate me. My solitude was a plus, I decided.

I was detained, yes, but on the personal orders of the president. That meant he feared me and Leyla. I had no doubt that international human rights organisations and politicians around the world had begun a campaign on our behalf. Thinking of that made me happy: we had not lived our lives in vain, if so, many people had started a campaign in our defence.

And how free had I been before my detention? Was I living in a free country? No, I had just been living in a different type of cell, just one conveniently fitted out that I shared with my beloved cell-mates, Leyla and Dinara. In an undemocratic and unfree country such asAzerbaijan, people were not detained – they merely changed their private and more or less comfortable habitations for the less comfortable cells of the State. That was the only difference.

Subsequently, I always corrected the investigators, especially MNS staff, during interrogations and said that I had not been detained, I had changed one cell for another. Then I enquired of my investigators: were they content with the private cells they currently occupied? In unfree and undemocratic countries no one, not even the president or his ministers, let alone investigators, are safe from arrest. I enjoyed watching their faces after my questions. I did not know that my predictions would soon come true and that within a year, at the end of 2015, my MNS investigators would also find themselves in the state apartments known as “prison cells”!

But that lay in the future. On my third day of solitary confinement, I drew up new rules of conduct for myself that markedly changed my life in prison. I had gained my bearings and began to calm down. I had to work out other rules for survival.

It was then I rememberedTofiq Gasymov,Azerbaijan’s foreign minister in 1992-1993 during the short-lived democratically elected government of the Popular Front. In September 1995, two years after that government fell, he was arrested on the orders of President Heydar Aliyev and imprisoned in the MNS detention centre, where he endured terrible torture. Five months later, in February 1996, he was released on health grounds and soon left the country. At home, we often recalled this charming man, who was a well-known physicist. For a long while we assumed that he had been so badly tortured that it unhinged his mind. Now I found myself in solitary confinement I could understand why Tofiq Gasymov had developed mental problems. He was also held in solitary confinement – perhaps in this very cell, I wondered? – and it was this, more than torture, that had damaged and undermined his health.

Writers, poets, artists and others engaged in creative work are particularly vulnerable in these conditions. In normal circumstances, creative people often prefer solitude in which to consider and resolve specific issues. When they are totally isolated in prison, however, the situation changes fundamentally. Their brains continue to function, but if they are not engaged in their chosen activity, then they become depressed and serious mental problems follow. Tofiq Gasymov, I realised, had not taken care of his mind in solitary confinement and that was why he developed serious health problems.

Having identified the sources of my psychological crisis, I began to think of ways to tackle the problem. “I must make my brain think and remember,” I said to myself. “It must be as active as before my arrest.” I paced up and down the cell, sat on the bed and repeated these words as if they were an oath. My gaze returned, as a reflex, probably, to the hatch in the door. It began to resemble a TV screen and an old Italian comedy, “Signor Robinson”, came to mind. The hero finds himself on a desert island and, accustomed to the benefits of civilisation, he imagines he has a television and begins watching films on its imaginary screen. It was my turn to fantasise. Solitary confinement was not so very different from living on a desert island. The hatch could easily become my “television”.

I liked the comparison and began “watching” films on my imaginary screen. That is, I remembered films and particular scenes. Then I started watching serials, which helped to complicate the assignment. I tried to remember everything that occurred in the first, second, third and subsequent episodes of one and the same serial. I enjoyed this activity and it helped me devise another rule of survival that was crucial for creative people: the brain must remain active.

Detention in solitary confinement changed drastically. To all appearances, things were the same as before. I had no contacts with others and did not see anyone. Three times a day, the hatch opened, and I was given food. Yet my depression had lifted, and the gloomy thoughts disappeared. I stopped listening to sounds outside. I did not study the walls or the insects crawling there. Instead, I watched films on my television and, when I was tired, I took exercise and resumed walking up and down the cell.

I “watched” a great many films. Later I realised that was no longer enough. You cannot watch films endlessly, one after another. Your brain wearies of such an activity. It was not an entirely creative process, either, even though it started the brain working again and exercised the memory. I had to think of ways to make the process more complex and creative. It was then I decided to compose a book in my head. Today we tend to think that you can only write, sitting at a table with pen and paper or in front of a computer. The capacity of the human mind is unlimited, however. In Antiquity and in pre-literate societies people created and committed to memory vast brilliant works such as the Iliad and the Odyssey. In later periods writers and readers created, memorised and recited thousands of poems (not to forget religious believers who learn by heart their enormous sacred books). Today many chess-players play blindfold, committing all their moves to memory.

Before my arrest, I was working on a book about terrorism. I wanted to create a psychological portrait of the average terrorist, and to explain the motives and causes behind terrorist acts. My arrest halted that work. “Why not resume work on the book in here?” I thought to myself. The idea of writing a scholarly work in my head inspired and uplifted me. It was a powerful impulse, after which solitary confinement ceased to weigh on me. I had found the antidote to solitude in prison. In my soul I was always free of our society and had my own views about everything. During my first three days in solitary confinement I had gone through a psychological crisis. Now that pressure lifted, and I was a free man once again.

My days acquired direction and purpose. I woke at 6 am, had breakfast and then, after exercise, I began to work on the book. It was very entertaining, though the process was often tortuous since my brain was teeming with thoughts and ideas. At times, I could spend hours over a single sentence. These were the happy pains of creativity, however, which helped me live and disregard my surroundings. I was so inspired that I noticed nothing else.

It was a terribly hot August inBaku and hard to breathe in the cell: there was no ventilator, let alone an air conditioner. I suffered from high blood pressure. My state of health demanded different living conditions and I should have been regularly taking the appropriate medicine. I slept on someone else’s filthy bedding. I had not washed for days – Saturday, 9 August, was shower day at the detention centre but they overlooked me, of course. I could not change my clothing because I had no clean clothes with me. Yet the chance to create had arisen, and to not be distracted by anything else, and I felt wonderful.


The whispering woke me. I listened. One of the warders was speaking on a two-way radio. Then he approached my cell and began to open the door. This was something new. It was around midnight. “Why are they coming into the cell at this time?” It was all I could ask myself before two warders came into view.

“Get dressed. Quickly!"

“Everyone’s asleep. Where are you taking me at this time of night?”

“No questions – do as you’re told. When you’re in the corridor, face the wall, hands behind your back!”

In the corridor, they searched and handcuffed me. Then they led me to the left, towards the duty officer’s room and in the “waiting room” ordered me to face the wall. Again, I was searched then they put a black, knitted “Chechen” mask over my head,[1] pulling it tight like a bag so that I could not see anything. I was ordered to stand still and not move. Clearly, the warders were waiting for someone.

I knew why they’d got me out of bed and who we were waiting for. I knew where they were about to take me. Leyla and I had long reported on the treatment of political prisoners. We knew how things were organised at the MNS. When a prisoner was taken somewhere in the night, he was to be interrogated and tortured. Interrogation without beatings and torture was reserved for the daytime. During the day the investigators used blackmail, psychotropic substances or simple deception to get the information they needed or to frighten a prisoner into signing a deposition. They did not beat a prisoner by day, especially if he was a well-known political or public figure.

Those in charge of the MNS must have observed me during the first few days of complete isolation, concluded that psychological torment had failed and decided to use other means of persuasion. That is why I was being taken for night-time interrogation. I was handcuffed to prevent resistance and blindfolded so that I did not know who was escorting me or where we were going. I was masked so that no other MNS staff could tell which prisoner was being taken for interrogation.

We did not wait long, about twenty minutes. Two persons entered the room, took me by the arms and led me towards the special goods lift for prisoners. From the outside it was clear that the MNS was a seven-storey building, but during my outing to court I was surprised to see that there were only three buttons in the lift. Prisoners could not tell where they were going, or to what floor. The same was true, I learned later, of the ordinary lift for staff and guests. What’s more, in neither lift, did the second button work; it simply lit up to confuse outsiders. The lifts went up to the 6thfloor, when Button 3 was pressed, and down to the ground floor when Button 1 was pressed.

By listening and making my own calculations, it was possible to determine the floor. When they took me in the lift on the way to court and back, I began to estimate how long it took to reach the ground floor and, coming back, to reach the 6th floor. Now I began to count and could easily tell that the lift had gone further than the ground floor. The lift stopped in the basement of the MNS, probably one or two floors below ground.

I was led down a long corridor and taken into a large room. They sat me on an ordinary chair and removed the mask, but not the handcuffs. I looked around. The room was poorly lit, and I could not see how it was furnished. I’m short-sighted, and deliberately left my glasses in the cell because my torturers might break them, and I would find it very difficult without them.

There were four MNS men in the room. Three were standing while their boss sat behind a desk. He was about 50 years old, with well-fed, ignorant features. From his crude behaviour I easily recognised someone from the provinces who had a high opinion of himself. From his accent he was clearly an Azerbaijani fromArmenia. (In the 1980s and 1990s I had a great many meetings and conversations with Azerbaijani refugees who came fromArmenia and learned to recognise them by their accent and behaviour.)

He got up, approached me and asked me, rudely:

“Well? Do you know where you are and why?”

“I’m at the MNS and that’s enough.”

“Right. At the MNS. Everything is strict here and we do not waste time on enemies of the Azerbaijani people. So, let’s take things easy: you’re middle-aged and have problems with your health. Let’s not waste time. Tell us the truth about your visits and meetings inArmenia.”

“First, introduce yourself.”

“I am Colonel Vusal Alakbarov, and these are my officers. Now let’s talk.”

I did not let him finish:

“I do not intend to talk to anyone without a lawyer. To begin with you should have invited a lawyer here, and then me.

“You’re a clever man and know quite well that it’s late and lawyers will not come at this time, only during the day. Write your deposition and then, in the daytime, we’ll repeat it all in the presence of a lawyer.”

“I said I will not say anything without a lawyer!”

Of course, I had no intention of breaking my rule, not to give any depositions, even in the presence of a lawyer. However, a lawyer had to be present to record the interrogation and prevent torture. Otherwise, as victims of torture had told Leyla and myself, the investigators could declare that a summons to an interrogation had to be entered in the detention centre logbook. That meant that if there was no such record, no interrogation had taken place. and none of the prisoners had been interrogated at night without a lawyer. The conclusion is that no one in the MNS tortures prisoners and all the statements about ill treatment were figments of the imagination of ill-wishers. The marks left by torture were self-inflicted.

I knew this very well, which was why I demanded a lawyer to register that an interrogation had taken place.

“I see,” drawled Vusal Alakbarov. “It seems you’ve understood nothing. And I wanted to make things easy. Well, you want problems? Then you’ll get them.”

Turning to his underlings, he added:

“Evidently, he doesn’t see very well – there’s not much light in here. Take him to a room where the light is brighter, and he can see better where he is. Let him have another think there.”

Two of the men pulled me roughly to my feet. The third came up and punched me so hard in the stomach that I gasped with pain. They dragged me into another room. There they raised my handcuffed arms and chained them to the ceiling. Later I learned that this type of torture was termed “hanging on the rack”. The handcuffs cut into my arms and it was painful, but relatively tolerable. I was still able to stand on my two feet. Meanwhile, they directed a strong ultraviolet lamp directly into my eyes, so that I could not look ahead calmly. I had to close my eyes and stand with my arms hanging from the ceiling. Very soon my arms grew numb and the strong ultraviolet lamp made me feel as though everything inside was on fire, or that I was inside a stove.

Roughly half an hour later, they released me and took me back to the first room, where I again faced Colonel Alakbarov:

“Well, have you wised up? Still want a lawyer? Or will you testify?”

“I told you I will only speak in the presence of a lawyer. Keep a civil tongue in your head.”

“I see. We didn’t hang you up long enough. Take him back and give him longer. And don’t let him fall asleep!”

They fastened my arms to the ceiling, but this time my feet could not reach the floor. It was very painful. My arms grew so numb that they did obey my commands. My left hand was particularly painful where the handcuff pressed against the tendon. I wanted to cry out with pain, but I did not have enough air. My torturers were observing me and when they saw my face, they took me down and sat me on a chair. Ten to fifteen minutes later, however, they hung me up again. This was repeated and each time they asked: “Now will tell us about your visits and criminal ties with Armenians?” I did not have the strength to speak. With difficulty I shook my head as a sign of refusal.

Towards morning they sat me on the chair with my handcuffed arms behind me and shone the ultraviolet lamp at my face. All the time they attentively followed my expression. As soon as I closed my eyes or fell asleep, they woke me with heavy blows to the back of my head and my ears. I was already so tired and eager to sleep that I felt nothing.

Torture once again

…In August 2014 my situation changed for the worse. The MNS had evidently listened to my meeting with the representative of the Red Cross and our conversation and decided that harsher methods were needed.

Later several MNS staff told me that all orders concerning me and, above all, the order to use torture came from the Minister of National Security himself, Eldar Makhmudov.

…I had hardly become used to sleeping peacefully again when, on Tuesday 19 August, roughly two hours after shutdown, they got me out of bed. There followed the usual procedure. I was searched, handcuffed and led to the “waiting room” where I was searched again, and the knitted black Chechen balaclava was pulled over my head. Then I was led by other MNS staff to the cellars where Colonel Vusal Alakbarov and his thugs were waiting. Towards morning I was taken back to the 6th floor and handed over with the words: “We’ve brought Arif back from the cellar. He’ll wise up now,” followed by some choice obscenities in my direction.

This continued, with brief interludes, every night for a month. For the most part I was tortured by Alakbarov’s underlings, although from time to time he also joined in. Confident of their impunity, my torturers did not make particular efforts to conceal their faces and, in chatting to one another, even revealed their names. Later, with the help of other staff at the detention centre I established that the most brutal investigator was called Elshan Murtuzov. I could not find out the surnames of two of my other tormenters and knew them only as Sahib and Mahir. The names of another two torturers remain unknown to me. Nor could I tell what rank they were. They always wore civilian clothing on the job.

Once I overheard Alakbarov say to one of his helpers: “Be rough but careful, especially with his face: we don’t want any trouble later on.” They were to hit me so as to leave no marks, especially on my face. That’s why they most often used the following methods: they would hang me up by my hands or make me stand with my handcuffed hands above my head and a strong UV lamp pointed in my face. It was stuffy in the room; there was no ventilation. My torturers held a damp towel in their hands and often wiped themselves with it. Then they soaked it thoroughly, twisted it into a tight knot and used it to beat the back of my head and my spine. The blows were very painful and the whole of my body turned red and ached all over. The next day, however, back in the cell, I could find no marks on my body. Narrow strips from the handcuffs, especially on my left wrist, were all that remained. I shall never forget the hellish pain.

It was hot in the cellar. From dehydration my lips dried and cracked. I very much wanted water, especially when I watched my tormentors drink chilled water periodically from a plastic bottle. Once I could not help myself and asked them for water. In response one of them laughed and filled an empty bottle with water. Then, unexpectedly, he came up to me and started hitting me with the bottle as hard as he could on the back of my head and my spine. I would never have thought that blows from an ordinary one and a half litre plastic bottle filled with water could be so painful.

Quite often they used the following method of torture, especially in September. My wrists were wound about with a bandage or other soft material so that the handcuffs would leave no mark. Then my arms were forced behind my back and bound together with handcuffs that were attached to some object (usually the radiator). I had to sit for a long while without moving. At times, I was hung up high for approximately half an hour to a crossbar or something similar and then I dangled as if on the rack. That kind of torture causes pain in the wrists and the back. Sometimes they tied me with ordinary adhesive tape to a chair, both arms and legs, and made me to sit in that position for several hours. That was not so bad. At other times they tied my hands with rope behind my back and then bound my hands to my tied feet. It is impossible to remain long in that uncomfortable pose. My whole body swelled up, and I grew short of breath without enough air to breathe.

Several times, for variety, they put an ordinary but quite large plastic bag, the kind used in supermarkets, over my head. Probably they put not one but two bags over my head and then twisted them a little round my neck. It’s a very painful form of torture. You sit on a chair with your arms and legs tied with tape or with handcuffs and from time to time they cut off the air with the help of this plastic bag. You have no oxygen, breathing becomes more and more difficult, and gradually you lose consciousness. At the very moment when you think you are about to die from lack of air, when you are desperately and convulsively trying to bite through the plastic, your tormentors suddenly stop twisting the bag firmly around your neck. Breathe, quickly! “Does it hurt?” you hear your tormentors ask compassionately: “Do you need anything? Can we help?” More often, I would hear something else: “Now will you testify about your links to the Armenians? Have you wised up or do you want some more?” Then it all began again.

Once they sprayed something inside the bag, teargas perhaps. I can’t be certain, but after they tightened the bag around my neck I not only suffered from a loss of air, but also had a sharp pain in my eyes.

At times my torturers threatened to use electric-shock treatment, pull out my nails, or crush my fingers in the door, if I was stubborn and did not give the testimony they needed. They promised to do a great deal more from their repertoire of torture, but these remained only threats.

As a rule, torture in the cellar took place between midnight and 4-5 am. I was not able to nod off even for a moment. They watched my face attentively and immediately woke me with blows to the back of my head and my spine. The team of torturers, meanwhile, changed constantly. I could only catch up on my sleep during the day in the cell. In September, I ceased reacting to severe pain in my body. It was more important was to get enough sleep and gather my strength to face torture in the cellar during the night. My strength quickly ebbed away and by mid-September I was physically exhausted.

To begin with, I found the strength to reply to my tormentors. In captivity under no circumstances must you show signs of weakness. It was even more dangerous to show weakness under torture. That was a very bad sign and would certainly be used by the investigator to attain his ends. It was very important for me, therefore, to show my tormentors that they could not break me. My experience shows that the most effective response during interrogation and torture is to regard your torturers with irony. This annoyed them more than anything else. When they were getting tired, I suggested that they take a rest: they should have something to eat and get their strength back, take a nap and then come back and torture me with fresh force. When my strength began to desert me, and it was hard even to say anything to my tormentors, I began to respond to all their questions with smiles of pity and derision.

[1] The black, knitted “Chechen” mask was widely used by soldiers of the Russian army inChechnya, hence the name. At the Ministry of National Security inAzerbaijan the mask or balaclava was pulled over the head of prisoners who were being escorted somewhere else so that they could not see where they were going or notice anyone or anything that they should not see. The escort guards themselves worse Chechen masks, but they had holes cut for the eyes and mouth. Sometimes they made prisoners, including myself, wear eyeshades instead of the Chechen mask.

Dissidents Path: From Soviet camp to Azerbaijan prison by Leyla & Arif Yunus was translated from Russian into English by John Crowfoot. The editor is Thomas de Waal.


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