Smuggled letters in the museum

18 Sep 2015 anna

On Sunday 13 September, sixteen different groups took over BP-sponsored British Museum for a whole day of performances in resistance to oil sponsorship. This is a partial transcript of our performance that took place in the Museum’s room 56 (Mesopotamia collection).


This is a performance by Platform London in solidarity with Azerbaijan’s political prisoners. We invite you to stay and listen.

British Museum Mesopotamia display. Photo by James TaylorAcross the globe British colonialism led to the plundering of cultural artefacts, of sacred and precious objects; and one of the legacies is their display in our museums today – nowhere is this more apparent than the British museum. For more than one hundred years the museums of Great Britain have bolstered national white pride by showcasing  a plethora of artefacts looted during slavery and colonialism. Of course it wasn’t just culture Britain took – there were food stuffs,  there were minerals, and there were people. The British empire eventually ended thanks to the struggles of those who fought against their exploitation by colonial powers, who fought for self-determination and independence.

The old empires were not content to accept people’s demands to be free and fought in return to keep their riches. Control of resources often remained in the hands of foreign corporate interests – this was a system of new colonialism. Today companies like British Petroleum still exploit and profit from resources that should belong to people.

It is fitting that these two colonial institutions – the British museum and British petroleum –  meet in these galleries, as BP’s logo adorns these walls.

4000 kms away BP’s logos also adorn the buildings of Baku, a city on the Caspian Sea which is the capital of Azerbaijan.

Ruled by an oil dictator, Azerbaijan is a repressive country. The ruling family, the Aliyevs, have held onto power in Azerbaijan through a combination of fraudulent elections, arresting opposition candidates, beating protesters and curtailing media freedom.

Platform performance at British MuseumThe Aliyevs’ rule was cemented by BP when they signed the so-called ‘contract of the century’ in 1994. This brought 11 corporations into a consortium to extract oil from the Caspian Sea, BP (as the operating company) has made huge profits from azeri oil. The oil extraction also gave the Aliyev family vast wealth and important allies overseas.

Mirvari Gahramanli who works at the Oil Workers Rights Protection Organisation   blames BP for the country’s autocratic president:

BP is where the president got his power from. What is he without the money? Where is his wealth, where are his police, without BP’s money? The Aliyevs have grown rich from BP and now as a result they have much more power.

In the last two years there has been a terrible crackdown in Azerbaijan that has seen lawyers, activists, journalists, politicians, bloggers and human rights defenders imprisoned, including people that we know.

The alliance between an autocratic family and BP has moulded Azerbaijan into an industrial resource colony. It has become a zone of sacrifice, a place where ecology, social justice and human rights are put aside when they threaten the extraction of oil and gas. Azerbaijan is being drained of fossil fuels, drained of wealth and drained of democracy.


Leyla and Arif Yunus lived in Baku with their daughter Dinara. Leyla was a human rights and peace activsit, Arif a historian – in their work they challenge the government again and again. On the 13 august Leyla was sentenced to 8 and a half years in jail and Arif seven years. Both Leyla and Arif are very ill, many fear they will die in jail.

Leyla was not allowed to give a closing statement during her trial, but this did not silence her. She smuggled this letter out of prison.

They didn’t give me the opportunity to speak in court, but I want my voice to be heard. Finally, I saw Arif. We haven’t seen each other, and I haven’t heard his voice for a year! He celebrated his 60th birthday in a prison cell, and I’ll have to mark my 60th birthday in jail as well.

We were separated on our 37th wedding anniversary of our wedding, and I already don’t believe that we can be together in this world… with our daughter and the whole family.

We are both historians, and we are well aware that despotism is based on repressions.

Anar, Ilgar, Intigam, Hilal, Seymour , Khadija, Rasul,  Rashadat and so many others. More than a hundred of the brightest and cleanest…

In the 80s Arif, and I worked for the Express-Chronicle newspaper which was published illegally. In 1986 our colleague Marchenko died in  prison. For me, it was a shock. I am well aware of the deaths in Stalin’s camps, since three brothers of my grandfather passed away there. But in 1986….

At that time, I realized that the terror continued in the USSR, and we had to be ready for it, but I could not assume that the independent Azerbaijan would follow the same path. 

As a human rights activist with nearly 30 years of experience, I knew about torture in Azerbaijan. Still, it was hard when I was attacked in the first months of my detention, when on September 23d, 2014, a young and strong man, started beating me. As a result of these beatings, I lost the ability to see normally with my left eye.

On December 11, 2014, I was dragged by my feet into a solitary confinement without explaining a reason… I heard from Arif that he had also been assaulted during the first days of his arrest…

Arif suffers from stage 3 arterial hypertension. This means strokes, paralysis, hemorrhage, and unpredictable blood pressure hikes. Now he has a tumor on his head. He has been held in a solitary confinement for a year, and he suffers from a persistent pain. It is well-known that I suffer from diabetes and liver decomposition.

they’re planning to wipe us out in agony. Why is that? So that our agony and our deaths become a lesson for all. If they do not shy away from destroying a well-known family, then others are easy to destroy as well. Fear must live in the hearts of citizens. Fear and hopelessness. I have no illusions about this trial, ther was no investigation.

Which articles of the law do you use to fake accusations, make up a crime and sentence defendants  – these orders come to prosecutors and judges from the top.

Neither the investigators nor the prosecutor fear that their lies can be refuted… 

I will not participate in this trial. I’ll just sit with Arif and hold his hand. We both know that this is our last date. When it all breaks down, I will not be there with him.

So As my Polish teacher taught me: “For your freedom Arif, and ours.”

This is a performance by Platform about why BP has no right to have its logo on these galleries. We invite you to stay and listen.

Khadija-Ismayilova-in-Baku-studioKhadija Ismayil is a journalist in Azerbaijan. Khadija pioneered investigative journalism in the country, not just through her own work but by mentoring other journalists.  Khadija’s investigations showed that corruption began with the President and his family, who illegally owned many state businesses. In retribution for the information she revealed Khadija was spied on , blackmailed, threatened and eventually imprisoned. Khadija was clear that international governments and companies were also responsible for the repression in Azerbaijan – in particular BP

BP bear a responsibility for what is happening in Azerbaijan. The Aliyev regime is good for BP. It allows their operations and they can sort out issues with the regime. Political influence is part of the bargain. BP is blamed for bringing Aliyev  to power but it’s not just historic – the UK government is silent about problems with democracy in Azerbaijan. BP’s interests are dictating the agenda.

Two weeks ago Khadija was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison, she wrote this letter from her cell. During the BP sponsored European Games that took place in Baku this June.

Dear Editor,

The eyes of the world are on my country, my beloved Azerbaijan, as it hosts the inaugural European Games, beginning on Friday. The tourists and athletes are enjoying the spectacle of the opening ceremony while the international public watches on television at home.

But I will not see the games. I don’t know what the weather is like or how bad the Baku traffic is. I have access to very little information of any kind. I am sitting in my cell in the Kurdakhani prison — my home for the past six months.

I am a journalist, in jail for my work exposing corruption at the highest levels of the Azerbaijani government. I have been targeted, along with dozens of other political prisoners — fellow journalists, human rights defenders, youth activists, politicians and others — for telling the truth about the situation in my country. Azerbaijan’s best and brightest have been locked up, tucked away for the European Games. They didn’t want you to see or hear us and our inconvenient truths.

The truth is that Azerbaijan is in the midst of a human rights crisis. Things have never been worse. As those at the top continue to profit from corruption, ordinary people are struggling to work, struggling to live, struggling for freedom. And we must struggle with them, for them.

I am carrying on my struggle here, from jail. My investigations into corruption continue, thanks to the help of dedicated colleagues. I have been punished for speaking out from jail, placed into solitary confinement, and prevented from seeing my family and lawyers. My notes have been seized from my cell. As I have said before, if this is the price to pay, it is worth it.

Today, I say to the international community: Do not let the government of Azerbaijan distract your attention from its record of corruption and abuse. Keep fighting for human rights, for those who are silenced. Keep fighting for right, and for good. Be loud, and be public. The people of Azerbaijan need to know that their rights are supported.

And please, don’t call just for my freedom; call for the release of all political prisoners. Stand up for freedom of expression in Azerbaijan. Stand up for human rights.


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