Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has stripped a prominent novelist of the title of “People's Writer” as well as his presidentially awarded pension for writing a book that casts a sympathetic light on Armenians.
Azerbaijani media reported late on Thursday that the actions were taken against Akram Aylisli because of his novel "Stone Dreams," which was printed in a popular Russian magazine last year.
The novel portrays brutal campaigns by his fellow Azerbaijanis against Armenians -- including the notorious January 1990 pogrom in Baku in which Armenians were murdered by the dozens and expelled from the city. At the same time, Aylisli avoids portraying Armenians as aggressors and Azerbaijanis the victims.
Azerbaijani media quoted Aliyev's decree, which said Aylisli was punished "for distorting facts in Azerbaijani history and insulting the feelings of Azerbaijani people."
Aylisli told RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani service that the presidential decision was "unexpected" because his title and pension were awarded to him for his other works in the past.
Speaking to the service on January 31, Aylisli defended "Stone Dreams," saying he felt it is his responsibility, as an Azerbaijani, to acknowledge his country's role in the conflict. “This novel is a kind of message to Armenians living in Karabakh; in other words, to the Armenian citizens of Azerbaijan,” Aylisli said. “The message is this: Don't think that we've forgotten all the bad things we've done to you. We accept that.
“You have also done bad things to us. It's the job of Armenian writers to write about those bad things, about the  Khojaly massacre.
“Maybe they've written about it already, maybe they will write about it in the future. I don't know. Because it's not possible for any people to commit such cruelties and not write about it. Don't politicize these things.
“If Armenians continue to live in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, we have to live side by side. This novel is a message to them. Don't be afraid. It's not the end. We can live together.”
The novel prompted angry demonstrations in Baku last week, with angry crowds gathering outside Aylisli’s apartment block, shouting "Shame!" and setting photos of the author alight. Ali Ahmedov, the executive secretary of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party, said Aylisli had dealt a "moral blow" to the country and even accused the writer of secretly being Armenian.
According to RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani service, Azerbaijani lawmakers meeting on February 1 in parliament went so far as to call for a DNA test to determine Aylisli's ethnic heritage. Others called for him to be stripped of his status as a state writer and even his citizenship.
Other pro-Aliyev critics have compared Aylisli to the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, the internationally celebrated author who has come under fire at home for comments related to the Ottoman-era massacre of ethnic Armenians, a taboo subject in Turkey.
Aylisli dismissed such criticism and accused Azerbaijani officials of exploiting the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict for their own political gain. “There are people who have made a fortune out of the sufferings of two people -- Azerbaijanis and Armenians,” he told RFE/RL. “They've built careers, gotten rich, gotten good jobs [in the government].”
Aylisli, 75, graduated from the prestigious Gorky Literature Institute in Moscow. He won appreciation for his focus on rural and provincial life, basing his pen name -- Aylisli -- on the name of his native village in Azerbaijan's Ordubad region.