A prominent jailed Azerbaijani activist ended his hunger strike after 51 days just as intimate images and conversations taken from his Facebook account were exposed.
Feminist activists fear for the lives of the women who feature in the leaked content – some of whom are themselves activists – given Azerbaijan's ultraconservative cultural mores. And they're angry at both the government, who allegedly released the files, and at Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, who failed to secure the privacy of women he has interacted with.
Hajiyev resumed eating on February 28 in response to public demand, his lawyer Agil Layic reported. The lawyer said he was assured by the chief of the Treatment Center of the Penitentiary Service, where Hajiyev has been since February 10, that his client would receive "necessary conditions for rehabilitation, and that a doctor would be appointed."
Layic conveyed Hajiyev's thanks to all his supporters and vowed that the legal battle would continue "until justice is achieved."
Hajiyev was arrested on December 9 on charges of hooliganism and contempt of court. He was placed in pre-trial detention, which a Baku court recently prolonged until April 28. If found guilty, he faces a prison term of between two and five years.
Hajiyev connects his arrest to his activism. Until the last day of his hunger strike, Hajiyev had refused his family's and lawyers' pleas to resume eating, vowing to see it through "till death or freedom."
As of February 26, Hajiyev had lost 20 kilograms, he was having chest pain, his left hand was numb, and he had a sleep disorder, Zibeyda Sadigova, another of his lawyers, reported.
Hajiyev's decision to stop his hunger strike roughly coincided with the publication of intimate footage and online conversations with women that had been stolen from his Facebook account. His supporters believe the appearance of the material is part of a smear campaign orchestrated by the government.
Other hacked material from his Facebook page had surfaced in December in what was widely seen as an attempt to discredit Hajiyev among fellow opposition supporters.
It's not clear whether Hajiyev was informed of the latest invasion of his digital privacy or whether it played a role in his decision to stop the hunger strike.
In a Facebook post on March 1, Rufat Safarov, the director of the local human rights group Defense Line, which is working on the case, implied that Hajiyev was not aware of the leaks.
"Currently, the political hostage is unable to answer any questions, unfortunately. […] He will be informed about what happened in the past few days, and we will present his preliminary answers to society," Safarov wrote.
Hajiyev will have to answer, first and foremost, for having practiced poor cyber hygiene in a country where intimate photos and conversations are routinely used to blackmail, discredit and shame opposition activists, particularly female ones.
The jailed blogger and the government – the presumed source of the leak – have come under scathing criticism from feminist activists who say the exposures endanger the lives of the women concerned.
Indeed, there have been reports of women in the footage attempting suicide and running away from their homes in rural areas, out of fear for their conservative families.
"Horrifying things are happening in the country. The government, which is responsible for protecting the safety of citizens, deliberately and knowingly wants to make those women victims of suicide or murder," feminist activist Gulnara Mehdiyeva wrote. "They think that if the life of any of these women ends tragically, her blood will be on Bakhtiyar's hands and thus the government will have destroyed its rival."
On March 1, actress Tunay Aliyeva appealed to Mehriban Aliyeva, the first lady and vice president of Azerbaijan, to do something.
"Those who carry out this 'exposure' process do not care about these women's lives later on, their current family situation, their psychological situation and public opinion about them. This is a cybercrime, interference with people's personal lives. In addition, the country's citizens are thrown into great danger for the sake of political purposes," she wrote. (A non-intimate photo of Tunay Aliyeva in a public place with Hajiyev was among the leaked content.)
In a statement to independent news outlet Meydan TV, the spokesperson of the Ministry of Interior denied allegations that Hajiyev's account was seized by the government, saying that when Hajiyev was arrested, there were no digital devices on his person. He added that complaints have been filed by women in the footage and their families to investigate how the private content from Hajiyev's account has been exposed.
Safarov, the human rights activist working on Hajiyev's case, interpreted this as a signal that additional charges will be filed against Hajiyev, as he himself could be accused of sharing the materials and thus violating the women's privacy.