On February 18, 2017, just ten minutes after Netherlands-based Azerbaijani activist Orduhan Temirhan finished participating in a rally in Germany, he received a phone call from his sister. The head of the district police had called her, she told him, and threatened to “destroy” the family unless Temirhan stopped his activism in Europe and shut down his Facebook account.
Temirhan told her and her family to leave at once, but police had already surrounded the house. The next call he got, 30 minutes later, was from the police chief himself, who told him that 12 of his relatives had been taken in to the police station. “If you were a decent man, four of your sisters would not be here with me,” Temirhan said the officer told him. On the next call, the police chief put Temirhan’s sisters on the line, who cried and begged him to stop his work. He refused.
Having largely succeeded in stamping out public opposition inside the country, Azerbaijan’s government is now pursuing an increasingly aggressive campaign against dissidents outside its borders. That effort garnered headlines at the end of May when still-unidentified attackers seized Azerbaijani journalist Afghan Mukhtarli in Tbilisi and drove him to Azerbaijan, where he was arrested.
But that high-profile kidnapping was only the tip of the iceberg. As the numbers of Azerbaijani political emigres have increased in the last few years, so have government measures in curbing these external critics, including pressuring their families back home and deploying a wide range of online tools to make sure dissidents’ voices are either silenced or discredited back home.
A frequent pattern is that relatives of a dissident abroad are arrested on spurious drug charges, as happened with exiled opposition journalist Ganimat Zahid’s two nephews and the brother of blogger and social media activist Tural Sadigli. Another Azerbaijani journalist in Tbilisi, Gunel Movlud, also saw her two brothers arrested in Azerbaijan on bogus charges of drug possession.
Movlud said the arrests were clearly linked to her work with Meydan TV, an opposition Azerbaijani news station based in Berlin. “Even a child would understand these arrests are targeting Meydan. They don’t want anyone to work with Meydan,” she wrote in a Facebook post on October 14, 2015. “They are using relatives to pressure us.” The brothers were their parents’ sole caretakers, and their father died a year later. Her mother subsequently denounced her. “If my daughter won’t denounce Meydan TV, then I am denouncing her,” she said in an interview with BBC Azeri. “Both of my sons were arrested because of my daughter’s work with Meydan TV.” That followed similar pressure on relatives, and subsequent denunciations, targeting Meydan’s founder Emin Milli.
Parallel to the increased harassment of families, the government has improved its arsenal of technological weapons against online dissent. Those measures include deploying government sponsored trolls for public lynching campaigns and phishing emails to jeopardize contacts and devices. More recently, the attacks have grown in sophistication, including the use of online surveillance technology, distributed denial of service attacks and other means of interfering with opposition websites.
The Azerbaijani government also stepped up its legal battle against online activity it sees as undesirable. In March, the parliament passed a law banning a broad array of information from being published online. And the Azerbaijani parliament has twice in six months increased the penalties for slandering the president online: in December 2016, the punishment was set at a fine of up to 2,000 manats (about $1,190) and up to three years in prison; in June, the maximum prison sentence was increased to five years.
The government’s concern about opponents abroad dates from the early 2010s, when the Arab Spring protests, as well as the Gezi Park movement in Turkey, appeared to show the power of online organizing for anti-government activities. Much of what the Azerbaijani government does is not unique: a 2014 report by the London-based Foreign Policy Centre noted that one of the leading methods, across the post-Soviet space, of putting pressure on activists abroad is by targeting their families back home.
Baku also appears to be struggling with the fact that, in spite of mostly eliminating public dissent inside Azerbaijan, public resentment against the government remains strong, said Altay Goyushev, a historian and analyst in Baku. “The kinds of repressions they had been using didn’t bring satisfactory results,” he told EurasiaNet.org. “Applying Stalinist-style mass repressions is one option, but it has lots of risks as well. So they resorted to measures against those who live abroad.”
Meanwhile, Temirhan, the activist, said he plans to continue his activism in Europe, working with international organizations to try to get international sanctions imposed on Azerbaijani officials connected with human rights abuses. He has had to cut off contact with his family to try to protect them. And he says he is not concerned about what new online tools the government may introduce. “There will always be ways to get around blocking,” he said.
Arzu Geybullayeva is a freelance writer.