A prominent Azerbaijani writer has become the target of a state-approved campaign of intimidation after he published a novella he says was intended to build bridges with arch-foe Armenia.
Akram Aylisli's "Stone Dreams", which depicts relations between ethnic Azerbaijanis and Armenians in Azerbaijan, sparked outrage in Azerbaijan for what critics say is a pro-Armenian presentation of the bloody conflict between the ex-Soviet neighbours.
The novella's December publication in the Russian-language magazine, Friendship of Peoples, has been followed by a hostile campaign of intimidation against its author.
The most extreme phase of Aylisli's nightmare started when the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party demanded on January 31 that the 75-year-old writer repudiate his book and apologise before the nation.
"The Azerbaijani people must express public hatred" towards Aylisli, a high-ranking presidency official said.
Days later crowds started regularly gathering outside Aylisli's home, burning his effigies and shouting: "Akram leave the country now!" and "Shame on you!"
At its February 1 plenary, Azerbaijan's parliament condemned the book, with some lawmakers saying Aylisli should take a DNA test to prove his ethnicity.
With a stroke of a presidential pen, Azerbaijan's strongman leader Ilham Aliyev this month stripped Aylisli of his honorary title of "People's Writer", his medals and a presidential pension.
Aylisli said his wife and son were forced to resign from their jobs. Televised auto-da-fes of the writer's books are being held across the country.
The pro-government Yeni Musavat party leader, Hafiz Gadjiyev, has publicly pledged a $12,000 reward to anyone who would cut off Aylisli's ear.
'A campaign of vicious smears'
"The Azerbaijani authorities have an obligation to protect Akram Aylisli," Human Rights Watch said in a statement last week.
"Instead, they have led the effort to intimidate him, putting him at risk with a campaign of vicious smears and hostile rhetoric."
"Stone Dreams" describes violence against ethnic Armenians in Azerbaijan in the 1920s and in the late 20th century, when Baku and Yerevan went to war over Azerbaijan's now Armenian-controlled enclave of Nagorny Karabakh.
Critics accuse Aylisli of only describing the sufferings of the Armenians and ignoring atrocities committed by the Armenians against his own people.
"Aylisli's work moves us away from the day of reconciliation; an one-sidedly written work can't help settling the conflict," said opposition Musavat party leader Isa Gambar.
But in an interview with AFP, Aylisli said his book is "a hand of friendship, stretched out to the Armenians".
"I tell a story of an Azerbaijani, who becomes a victim while saving an Armenian. It's all about high moral values and human qualities," he said, rejecting accusations of being unpatriotic.
"'Stone Dreams' is against the hatred between the two peoples -- the hatred that inflicts suffering on so many people in the Caucasus."
The genuine hatred that still exists between Christian Armenians and Muslim Azerbaijanis is perceived to be a major factor hampering reconciliation between the two ex-Soviet neighbours locked in a conflict over the Karabakh region.
Aylisli's "novella is the truth thrown away in centuries to prove to the world that we are not savages," said the prominent Azerbaijani author Chingiz Guseynov, comparing Aylisli to the Nobel laureate Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk and the British-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie.
The conflict between Baku and Yerevan over Karabakh erupted in late 1980s as the bell tolled for the falling Soviet empire.
Armenia-backed separatists seized Karabakh from Azerbaijan in a war in the 1990s that left some 30,000 dead, and no final peace deal has been signed since the 1994 ceasefire.
Azerbaijan has threatened to take back the disputed region by force if negotiations do not yield results, while Armenia has vowed massive retaliation against any military action.