There is virtually no space for opposition in Azerbaijan’s parliament, but the government often appears happy to provide room for its rivals in prison. Some prominent faces from the country's drubbed-into-a-corner opposition were handed prison sentences on March 17 on controversial charges of inciting riots in a provincial town last year.
A court in the northeastern city of Sheki sentenced Tofi Yagublu, deputy chairperson of the Musavat Party, and Ilgar Mammadov, leader of the Republican Alternative (ReAl) rights group*, to five and seven years in jail, respectively. The court found the two guilty of sparking riots in Ismayilli, where thousands last January took to the streets, burning a hotel and laying siege to the local governor’s office. The government responded with sending riot police and keeping the city in a lockdown for several days.
Yagublu and Mammadov counter that they trekked out to Ismayilli to support the protesters and arrived when the unrest, sparked by a traffic accident involving the son of a cabinet minister, was already in full rage. Nevertheless, the Sheki court turned a deaf ear to the protests from defense lawyers, as well as local and international rights groups.
Azerbaijani investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova has been branded in her homeland as being everything and anything -- a woman of loose morals, a spy, or, worse, an Armenian -- to change the subject from the signs of high-level wrongdoing she exposes. Her latest exposé has been followed by an accusation of leaking state secrets to a delegation of supposed US spies that Azerbaijan’s state-controlled media claims visited Baku to collect intelligence in broad daylight.
Azerbaijani prosecutors, though, did not evince much interest in the revelation of an alleged act of blackmail by the government. It is the exposure of such blackmail that seems to count as a transgression. After Ismayilova made public documents implicating security agencies in recruiting opposition party members as informers and agents provocateurs, the Ministry of National Security launched an investigation into the potential leakage of a state secret.
For Ismayilova, the summons came as a long-awaited confirmation of the authenticity of the documents, which suggested that the national security ministry used bribes and secret recordings of opposition members' private lives to infiltrate the opposition camp. “Since the prosecutor’s office launched an investigation into the disclosure of state secrets, that means that this document is real,” she told the Russian service of the BBC.
Investigators, she said, have pressured her to disclose who provided her with the documents. Her refusal to comply may result in a six-month prison sentence.
Police escorted Zeynalov and his wife, Sevda Nur Arslan, a Turkish citizen, to the airport on February 9 after officials deemed his presence in Turkey “detrimental to public security,” Today’s Zaman reported. Zeynalov claims that he had linked to news reports from his Twitter account about the corruption scandal targeting Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government, which is notoriously thin-skinned toward public criticism.
At the request of the prime minister’s office, Turkish security agencies traced the tweets to Zeynalov’s account. Erdoğan filed a criminal complaint against Zeynalov, accusing him of stoking “hatred and animosity."
The December 16 arrest of well-known Azerbaijani democratization watcher Anar Mammadli has become the latest move in what critics call the Azerbaijani government’s ongoing war against civil activism and political dissent. But where Western democracy activists see the government trampling of civil society, some claim that many Western officials see only gas and oil.
Mammadli, who chairs the Baku-based Center for Election Monitoring and Democracy, documented cases of various violations in this October's presidential election, which brought a third encore for President Ilham Aliyev’s ten-year rule. His criticism of the last election included the post-election crackdown on dissenting media, and was picked up by international news outlets and cited by international watchdogs.
The charges against him, though, are not the usual favorites of drug possession or abuse -- crimes that tend to affect government critics in particular, according to Azerbaijani police -- but charges of tax evasion and an "illegal business activity," RFE/RL reported.
Aliyev's Yeni Azerbaijan Party has slammed Mammadli for supposedly slanderous attacks on the presidential administration and, ironically, for his “authoritarian methods of governance” of his own organization.
Parliament member Jeyhun Osmanli alleged that Mammadli, his office and its sponsors – the American-run National Democratic Institute and the European Commission -- are part of a conspiracy against the Azerbaijani government.
It’s not new that Facebook can be a dangerous thing. And not just for social faux pas.
Users who do not mince their posts can lose their jobs.Including in Azerbaijan, where a well-respected Baku State University historian, Altay Goyusov, claims that he had been asked to resign after expressing criticism of the university’s administration and the Azerbaijani authorities on his Facebook profile.
Goyusov’s cover photo shows police arresting Ilgar Mammadov*, an outspoken government critic and civil-society activist accused of helping stoke riots this January in the town of Ismayili. A photo caption calls for Mammadov's freedom.
The rector of Baku State University, Abel Megaramov, however, has denied the accusation, telling RadioAzadlig that he thought Goyusov was using the story as a means to "acquire political asylum in America."
After a long business trip to the US, he claimed, Goyusov "started to forget his national feelings" and, supposedly, began shirking work. He denied that he had been dismissed.
In response to the report, some of Goyusov’s students staged a protest and threatened to boycott classes. Goyusov thanked his students for their support, but requested them to go back to their classes. Several faculty members also spoke up for their colleague.
Provided to EurasiaNet.org courtesy of cartoonist Gündüz Aqayev
Investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova shown ridding Azerbaijan of "corruption," "bribery" and "cajolery" with broom and soap.
Corruption-busting Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova is now facing possible jail time after rejecting a change in punishment for participating in an unsanctioned anti-government rally in Baku earlier this year.
Insisting that Azerbaijanis have the right to assemble and express their views, Ismayilova had refused to pay the 400-manat (roughly $510) fine for taking part in the gathering. She was subsequently sentenced to sweep the main streets of Baku.
Promising to do her best to clean the Azerbaijani capital of all kinds of garbage -- not least, corruption -- she came up with a motto for her community service -- Sweeping for Democracy.
Gradually, as many Facebook and Twitter users pledged to come join her in her sweeping job, what was meant to be a punishment began to look like a rally.
The punishment was changed -- from sweeping outdoors to cleaning indoors, at a rehabilitation center for the disabled.
Ismayilova refused. She says she does not want to share the fate of youth activist Jamil Hajiyev, who was reportedly beaten at the site of his indoor community service. “They can do any kinds of provocations indoors,” she commented to EurasiaNet.org.
She is now facing three months in jail for refusing to work at the new location.
Prison may be just a click away for many Internet users in Azerbaijan now that the energy-rich, but rights-poor country has made online defamation and offensive languagea criminal offense. The move is seen by critics as an attempt to censor the Web ahead of this October's presidential election.
Human rights watchdogs have long maintained that Facebook-organized anti-government rallies, YouTube videos satirizing officials and other online activity have resulted in imprisonment of government opponents on various trumped-up charges. Now, they imply, prosecutors may not need to bother with tales of drugs or brawls to jail or fine critics.
What constitutes defamation or offensive language will be left to Azerbaijan’s government-loyal courts to decide. Judges can pick the preferred punitive measure from a list of punishment options for offline defamations and verbal abuse – a fine, corrective labor, or prison.
Rights groups have called on Azerbaijan to scrap the new law as a bad for democracy, something international watchdogs believe already is in short supply in the ex-Soviet republic.
"The authorities must not use the upcoming presidential election as a pretext to silence critical voices and a meaningful debate,” Amnesty International said.
With less than six months to go before the country's presidential elections, a pornographic web site containing content that targets opposition politicians and other public figures critical of the government has been created in Azerbaijan.
Called İctimayi Palatka (Public Tent), the site features hard-porn videos allegedly showing prominent individuals ranging from Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan leader Ali Kerimli to investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova* supposedly engaged in sexual intercourse.
While it is clear that the individuals shown in the videos do not represent the people named ( the materials appear to have been filched from foreign porn sites ), the video captions create a different impression.
The site, launched over a month ago, does not contain information about its owners and employees; the “contacts” section lists only a Gmail address.
No one has yet taken responsibility for İctimayi Palatka and its content.
Interference into private lives and the distribution of pornographic materials via media and the Internet are both criminal offenses under Azerbaijan’s Criminal Code (Article 163 and Article 242), which carry prison terms of several years.
The General Prosecutor’s office, however, has not yet opened a criminal investigation and has not responded publicly to the illegal site. Spokesperson Eldar Sultanov told EurasiaNet.org that the office has no information about İctimayiPalatka, and declined to comment further.
The portal appears to function and be constantly updated without problems.
Azerbaijanis better start watching their online language. Any unkind word thrown into cyber space may soon result in a legal action if plans to censor publicly accessible virtual conversations go through.
The new draft law proposes making web-based profanity and libel a criminal offense. The amendments, brought to the Milli Majli's floor by the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party, suggest equalizing offline and online insults and libel. Depending on how hard and at whom an Azerbaijani Internet user swears, he/she could face a fine up to 1,000 manats (upwards of $1,274), 240 hours of community service or even incarceration. An online libel offense would result in a similar assortment of punishments.
Legislating about the Internet may be a global trend, but, conceivably, this could spell trouble for online political dissent in tightly governed Azerbaijan. Police are believed to be watching the Facebook activity of government critics and have not been shy in the past about clapping people into jail after certain differences of opinion with the government.
If it’s any consolation, Azerbaijanis most likely would be able to watch the court proceedings on such or any other offenses online. With financial assistance from the World Bank, the country is making court hearings available online, Trend (http://www.trend.az/life/crime/1993850.html) reported.
No word yet whether the Azerbaijani government would consider including a Miranda-warning-style message that pops up every time someone logs onto the Internet to make sure everybody stays out of trouble.
In a move laden with unfortunate symbolism, the government this week in Azerbaijan, a country with already very little room for free thinking, according to international rights groups, closed down Free Thought University, an alternative education project for young people. The authorities claim that the closure of the Western-funded center is temporary, but, coming amidst a crackdown on the young organizers of recent unsanctioned anti-government rallies, many are taking that assurance with a grain of salt.
Established by young civil-rights activists, the Baku-based facility provides a forum for the free exchange of ideas via "interactive lectures, workshops and presentations" on human rights, governance and economy. Prosecutors claim that its criminal investigation of the youth group NIDA led them to Free Thought University, founded by another youth group, Ol.
Charges have not yet been filed against the Free Thinkers. Nonetheless, documents have been seized, the office door sealed shut, and a tax audit begun to "investigate the legality of the activities of this organization and its establishment, purpose of the money spent and received from foreign organizations as well as determine other details," Trend reported.