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.
Azerbaijan is considering changing the mandate of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Baku and has threatened to expel the US-run National Democratic Institute.
It was not immediately clear which aspect of the work by the OSCE, Europe's key peace and democracy-promoting body, had caused Baku's disgruntlement, but an organization representative, speaking from the OSCE's headquarters in Vienna, confirmed to EurasiaNet.org that the organization's mandate in Azerbaijan was under discussion.
In Baku on March 15, OSCE Secretary General Lamberto Zannier declared in a released statement that ". . .I am confident that the OSCE will continue its co-operation with Azerbaijan.” He denied reports of government inspections of the OSCE office or other worries.
The OSCE representative in Vienna said that Azerbaijani officials in the past have complained about the OSCE’s record in a range of areas, but that any change in the mandate will not affect the peace negotiations over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which are handled by the Minsk Group.
Activities touching on this October's presidential election, in which President Ilham Aliyev will seek a third term, might come to mind as one of the most likely bones of contention. The OSCE in the past has criticized Azerbaijan for poor handling of the electoral process and crackdowns on political dissent. All OSCE-monitored elections in Azerbaijan have fallen short of the organization’s standards.
Taking protesters on a road trip has become a favorite crowd-control technique for the Azerbaijani police. After treating the participants in a March 10 rally in Baku to a dose of rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons, the police drove a group of detained demonstrators tens of miles away from the capital city and dumped them in the middle of nowhere.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalist Khadija Ismayilova, one of those detained for hours by police and then taken for the ride into deepest Gobustan, said that she was able to call her friends, who followed the police bus and picked up the detainees. “I hid my phone and did not give it to the police,” Ismayilova said. (Ismayilova also has worked for EurasiaNet.org.)
Army officials have tried to explain several of the conscripts’ deaths as accidents or suicides. Relatives, gathering in Baku's Fountain Square with photos of the dead soldiers, angrily have rejected such claims, and demand justice.
Being a fly on the wall of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's office might not be a particularly prestigious calling, but, increasingly, as the dichotomy between events in Azerbaijan and the government's PR line grows ever broader, it might not even prove a particularly insightful one.
That notion came into play on February 7, after Western watchdogs and the international community took aim at Azerbaijan's recent arrests of two outspoken opposition members for allegedly inciting last month's disturbances in the town of Ismayilli, and pro-government news agencies featured the president talking about . . . Baku Magazine.
A feel-good glossy run by Aliyev's elder daughter, Leyla, the Russian-language edition is celebrating its fifth anniversary, and, this month, mom and dad made the cover.
In an interview duly distributed in English by sympathetic news agencies on February 7, the president (and First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva) touted Baku's beauty, the country's economic growth and stability, and, in case anyone missed them, the "political reforms," which "have contributed to create a free society."
"In our country, all citizens are guaranteed freedom of speech, conscience, the press and others," Aliyev elaborated.
Two prominent critics of President Ilham Aliyev's government were arrested in Azerbaijan on February 4 on charges of orchestrating the unusually daring anti-regime protests that took place in the town of Ismayilli late last month.
Coming after a run of arrests of protesters in Ismayilli and Baku, the detentions suggest that the government's unease about impromptu demonstrations in a presidential election year is not lessening. (Particularly with a Davos retreat in Baku this April, to boot.)
Prosecutors claim that Tofig Yagublu, deputy chairperson of the opposition Musavat Party, and Ilgar Mammadov*, chairperson of the opposition group REAL and a former political analyst, are to blame for instigating the demonstrations, which followed January 23 riots after a car accident that allegedly involved the nephew of the Ismayilli region's governor, Nizami Alakbarov. Yagublu and Mammadov reportedly traveled to Ismayilli to encourage protesters only after the demonstration itself, RFE/RL reports. Other sources say that poverty and the regional elite's high-handed behaviorhttp://www.eurasianet.org/node/66454 "> were the real cause of the unrest.
If proven guilty, Yagublu and Mammadov will face up to three years in jail.
*Ilgar Mammadov is an ex-board member of the former Open Society
Assistance Foundation-Azerbaijan, which was part of the network of Open
Society Foundations. EurasiaNet.org is run under the auspices of the
Open Society Foundation's Central Eurasia Project, a separate part of
“Arrested. In a bus with great people,” tweeted dissident Azerbaijani blogger Emin Milli, after riot police chased, beat and hustled protesters away from downtown Baku on January 26.
The Baku authorities have spared no effort to pound, quite literally, into residents’ heads that the center of the Azerbaijani capital is not the place to protest; rather, it is a stage for the government's various promotional campaigns, be it mega-pop concerts or international thought-exchanges. . . past, present or future. Leave the protests, please, to the outskirts.
With such high aims as Davos (and the European Olympics) in mind, the Azerbaijani government has very little patience these days for protesters. Police troops crushed the Ismayili uprising, which had been touched off by the reportedly thuggish behavior of the regional governor's son; in Baku, police chased and herded supporters of the Ismayili rioters away from the downtown area, and showered media with similar attention. Among the arrestees were the usual suspects: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reporter Khadija Ismayilova (who also has written for EurasiaNet.org) and activist Emin Milli.
The stage is set for another protester-police confrontation in the Azerbaijani capital. Activists plan to gather in downtown Baku on January 12 to condemn the recent death of an army conscript, Private Ceyhun Qubadov, and to raise awareness about non-combat deaths in the Azerbaijani military.
As of January 11, over 13,600 Facebook users had indicated that they would go to the event, but it is unclear if the offline rally will be a wide as the online one.
Azerbaijan’s state machinery and pro-government media have been put in motion in response to the Facebook-organized event. The Interior Ministry said that any unsanctioned rally would be prevented, which in Azerbaijani police parlance usually translates into “Demonstrators will be beaten, arrested and fined.”
To keep Baku's glamorized downtown protest-free, municipal officials do not allow rallies in the heart of the city, but the demonstrators nonetheless plan to gather in the central Fountain Square.
On January 11, pro-government media also released a statement from the deceased soldier’s mother, who requested that her son’s death not be used for political reasons and spoke against the rally. “I trust in the Azerbaijani state, its President Ilham Aliyev and hope that . . . all the culprits will be punished,” said Samira Qubadova.