A respected Azerbaijani author has been stripped of his pension and national honors for "insulting the dignity" of his country with a novel that describes Azerbaijanis attacking Armenians.
Akram Aylisli's "Stone Dreams," set during the wake of a bitter war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, drew protests after its publication for its sympathetic depiction of Armenians. The Azerbaijani government has long laid all the blame for the war on Armenia.
Late Thursday, President Ilham Aliyev announced his decision to strip the 75-year-old Aylisli of state honors and his pension.
In the novel, which was published in a Russian magazine last year, Aylisli refers to mob violence by Azerbaijanis against helpless Armenians in Baku.
One passage vividly describes the scene of a mob beating up a man they thought was Armenian and another episode suggests that an Azerbaijani man threw an elderly Armenian woman from a balcony.
The Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan and some adjacent territory have been under the control of Armenian troops and local ethnic Armenian forces since the end of the six-year war in 1994.
Hair-trigger sensitivity dominates accounts of the period in Azerbaijan, and attempts to question the widely accepted narrative of Armenia's exclusive guilt draw furious reactions.
Aylisli described the novel as a message of peace and said that he didn't expect such a heated response.
"I wanted to show that Azerbaijanis and Armenians aren't enemies," he told The Associated Press. "I never thought it would be so politicized."
He said that he hoped that an author in Armenia would consider writing similar material dwelling on atrocities against Azerbaijanis.
In late January, a youth group representing Nagorno-Karabakh refugees picketed Aylisli's home, holding up signs reading: "Why have you sold yourself out to the Armenians?"
A number of parliamentary deputies have also condemned "Stone Dreams," calling it a justification of Armenian separatism that creates the ideological basis for the illegal occupation of Azerbaijani territory.
In his decree chastising the author, Aliyev said that Aylisli was trying to cast Azerbaijanis in an inhumane light.
He has "distorted the essence of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, denigrated our distant and recent historical past, and insulted the dignity of more than 1 million people driven from their homes by the conflict," the decree said.
The Institute for the Protection of Media Rights said in a statement that the campaign against Aylisli was politically motivated.
"All this is a serious threat to artistic creativity in this country," it said in a statement.
Commenting on the uproar, Armenian blogger Kevork Oskanian hailed Aylisli for challenging what he described as government-created taboos. He also urged Armenians to more closely study the history of attacks on Azerbaijanis.
"In so doing, intellectuals and artists in both societies could eventually end up redeeming themselves from their sheepish subservience to nationalist narratives since independence," Oskanian said.
Leonard contributed from Almaty, Kazakhstan. Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow also contributed.