anews.az editor sentenced to three and a half years

February 28, regional editor for online news site anews.az Zaur Gambarov was sentenced to three and a half years in prison on alleged hooliganism charges reports Meydan TV. 

Gambarov is accused of throwing a chair at the Deputy Director of the State Social Protection Fund Gadabay Branch and beating his driver. Editor’s family members claim, the allegations are bogus and that Gambarov himself was beaten and later framed. 

“If the hearing was just, the court could have demanded the camera footage but they chose not to,” said Gambarov’s brother in an interview with Meydan TV. 

Gambarov in his defense said the reason for his arrest and sentence were his stories about corruption among government employees in Gadabay. Specifically, Gambarov points to a report he wrote about a relative of the head of the Gadabay’s City Administration which, according to Gambarov was the final straw that triggered the arrest. According to that story, the State Social Protection Fund employed a relative of the head of the Gadabay City Administration but that the relative never went to work at the Fund. 

In recent months, at least two website editors and journalists were sentenced to lengthy jail times – Polad Aslanov, and Afgan Sadigov. Both journalists have since been on hunger strike. 

activist’s personal messages leaked after hacking

Last year, ahead of International Women’s Day March, one of the activists and organizers of the March in Baku had her Facebook, Gmail, Protonmail, and Telegram accounts compromised.

At the time, Gulnara Mehdiyeva reported that a hacker who got access to her Gmail account, downloaded her achieve of documents and photographs some of which were sensitive. Mehdiyeva offers support to victims of domestic violence and abuse, and is an advocate for gender equality in Azerbaijan.

In the course of the next 48 hours, Mehdiyeva’s Facebook account was hacked and her admin privileges at some of the Facebook groups that focus on women’s rights and LGBTQI were revoked. These groups were suspended and one was deactivated. Not to mention, thousands of subscribers and content were lost as a result.  

A year later, on February 25, Mehdiyeva was targeted in a different online campaign. The private audio messages obtained from Mehdiyeva’s Facebook account that was hacked last year, were leaked online by one Facebook page, Tənqidçi [translation Critic]. The group that leaked the audio recording, accused Mehdiyeva of being emotionally unstable, questioning her ability to help victims of abuse as well as her alleged involvement in a recent suicide of a young girl. In another post, the page admin shared a post from a Facebook user, humiliating Mehdiyeva and her work. 

The Facebook page in question, shares posts from their readers, and other content they find interesting. In one recent post, the admins shared how a group of Azerbaijani men have been exchanging pictures and private information about their former girlfriends. The admins of the page, claim, the men are violating several articles of criminal code by doing this, and yet, in a post that is targeting Mehdiyeva, the admins were doing just that. Deliberate online targeting 

youth activist gets detention over criticism online

On February 22, Elmir Abbasov, a member of civic movement N!DA [translation: exclamation mark] was arrested in Sumgayit. He was sentenced to 30 days in administrative detention on bogus drug possession charges. 

Abbasov’s friends, refute drug allegations, saying the arrest is connected to his posts online, critical of the ruling government and that Abbasov was kidnapped in front of his home in Sumgayit city.

Following Abbasov’s arrest, N!DA movement issued this statement: “Member of N!DA and activist Elmir Abbasov was detained several days ago. We were only able to find out today [February 22]. Elmir Abbasov’s lawyer, Zibeyde Sadigova confirmed his detention. Elmir Abbasov was sentenced to 30 days in administrative detention in accordance with Article 206 of the Code of Administrative Offenses [Illegal consumption of drugs, psychotropic substances, preparation, acquisition, storage, transportation, or shipment in the amount of personal consumption without the purpose of sale]. Surely, the reason for Elmir Abbasov’s arrest is his political and social activism, his posts on social networks. Elmir Abbasov’s arrest is yet another example of persecution and repression against political activists. The primary condition for having a civil and just political environment in Azerbaijan is to stop all political repressions and release of all political prisoners. All political prisoners and Elmir Abbasov must be freed!”

Nidaçı fəal Elmir Abbasov bir neçə gün öncə Sumqayıt polisi tərəfindən saxlanılıb. Bu barədə məlumatı bu gün əldə…

Posted by Nida Vətəndaş Hərəkatı on Monday, February 22, 2021

Abbasov’s most recent post was published on February 16 which gives ground for his friends and colleagues to believe, that the cause of Abbasov’s arrest was this post. “The people of Azerbaijan know the truth, but do not speak it. The people know, that the main culprit of corruption in the country is Ilham Aliyev. The ministers, the government officials are simply a small part of this scheme. Is it really possible that billions are removed from the state budget and the head of state is unaware of this? Of course, he does and he also profits from it. So if people are aware of this, why they don’t say anything? Because the people are afraid of Ilham Aliyev. They are afraid of the things they may lose [employment, community, freedom, lives] if they go against Ilham Aliyev […]”

Azərbaycan xalqı həqiqəti bilir amma onu demir. Xalq bilir ki, ölkədə baş verən milyardlıq korrupsiya faktlarının əsl…

Posted by Elmir Abbasov on Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Independent journalist, Ulviyya Ali, reported on February 23, that Abbasov was tortured and beaten by the officers. “He was beaten both inside the car right after he was kidnapped from the front of his house and then at the station. He was threatened with torture unless he removed the post about Ilham Aliyev,” wrote the journalist via her Twitter account. 

The corruption allegations Abbasov alludes to in his Facebook post, are reflected in Azerbaijan’s global ranking on Corruption Perception Indexes. According to 2020, Transparency International global CPI Azerbaijan ranked 129 out of 180 countries. The most recent corruption scandal where Azerbaijan’s name cameos is this investigation, published by the Organized Crime and Corruption Project (OCCRP) on February 22. The investigation revealed how since 2015, Azerbaijan sold weapons stockpile to Congo-Brazaville. Although it was not possible to allocate the exact price the Congolese regime paid for the shipments, one expert said, it was possibly worth tens of millions of dollars, according to the investigation.

In 2017, another corruption scandal, Azerbaijani Laundromat exposed how the ruling elite ran a secret slush fund and a complex money-laundering scheme. The fund was mostly used to help whitewash Azerbaijan’s international image at the Council of Europe. Several delegates of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council (PACE), were among the recipients of the laundered money and were later expelled

These are just a few recent examples of how far and deep corruption runs. 

Elmir Abbasov is not the first activist to receive a bogus administrative sentence, fines, or face police violence over social media posts. This has been the case over recent years where scores of activists received offline punishments over their online comments, posts, and in the case of journalists, stories.  

OONI measurements indicate censorship remains

In its most recent measurement report, the Open Observatory of Network Interference [OONI] concludes that “while social media censorship in Azerbaijan appears to have been lifted, the media censorship remains.” These and other findings are based on the recent measurement report produced in partnership with OONI. 

Here are some highlights.

Blocked websites

The news websites that presented signs of blocking in Azerbaijan (between December 2020 to February 2021) include:

🛑 azerbaycansaati.tv – at the time of blocking azerbaycansaati.tv in 2017, the Government of Azerbaijan claimed “a number of articles published” by the news website “included calls aimed at ‘forcible change of the constitutional order,’ ‘organization of mass riots,’ and other illegal activities.” 

🛑 www.24saat.org – a more detailed report about how 24saat.org was blocked can be found in this report, published by Qurium in 2017. 

🛑 www.abzas.net – DDoS attacks against abzas.net commenced on January 12, 2017, and lasted for eight days. During five full consecutive days, the website remained inaccessible until it was finally migrated to VirtualRoad.org’s secure hosting infrastructure.

🛑 www.azadliq.info – as a hosting provider for azadliq.info Qurium published this report about initial signs of blocking against this online news platform. The website was attacked numerous times according to documentation and forensic reports by Qurium. The technology deployed in these DDoS attacks was Allot and Sandvine DPI gear.

🛑 www.azadliq.org – the news website which represents the Azerbaijan Service for Radio Free Europe, was blocked on March 27, 2017. 

🛑 www.gununsesi.org – signs of DPI technology used in blocking gununsesi.org were once again documented by Qurium.

🛑 www.kanal13.tv – was among blocked websites in 2017 while its editor prosecuted [charges were dropped three years later.] 

🛑 www.meydan.tv – was also among the websites that were blocked in 2017 together with azerbaycansaati, azadliq.info and others. 

🛑 www.occrp.org – in response to the leaks about Azerbaijan Laundromat published by the Organized Crime and Corruption Research Project [OCCRP], the government of Azerbaijan suspended access to OCCRP’s website.

There is no official data on the number of blocked websites in Azerbaijan. The Ministry of Communication, High Technologies and Transportation has so far failed to provide accurate lists. This in itself is a violation of Article 13.3.6 of the Law on Information, Informatisation and Access to Information, which requests the Ministry to prepare a list of blocked websites if it has blocked access to a resource and the court upheld this decision.

In July 2018, the Prosecutor General’s Office launched criminal investigations against four news websites: criminal.az, bastainfo.com, topxeber.az and fia.az. The former two were accused of “knowingly spreading false information,” while the latter two were accused of “spreading unfounded, sensational claims in order to confuse the public.” Criminal.az is an independent website, known for its coverage of crime-related news, while bastainfo.com is affiliated with the opposition party Musavat. The latter two are run-of-the-mill online news websites.

In addition to the usual suspects, video streaming service Vimeo appeared to be briefly blocked during the testing coverage:

Circumvention

Several circumvention tool websites appear to have been interfered with in Azerbaijan during the testing period, as illustrated below:

The good news are that access to social media sites and apps was restored during the testing period. The following chart shows that while WhatsApp and Telegram were blocked in November 2020, both apps (along with Facebook Messenger) have been accessible in recent months:

How you can help?

If you are interested in contributing to these tests you are welcome to try the following instructions

jailed journalist on hunger strike [updated]

[Update] On March 1, jailed editor Polad Aslanov marked 29th day on hunger strike according to Aslanov’s wife. 

[Update] Following a visit by a representative from Red Cross on February 21, Polad Aslanov was placed in a separate cell under medical supervision on February 22, said Aslanov’s wife Gulmira Aslanova. He will remain in quarantine for the next 14 days during which time, no visitors will be allowed explained Aslanova. 

[Update] Aslanov’s wife, Gulmira Aslanova, told Turan News Agency, on February 16, that Aslanov remains on hunger strike.

[Update] On February 15, the Baku Court of Appeal dismissed Aslanov’s appeal, ruling to keep him behind bars.

Polad Aslanov, editor of the Xeberman news website has been on hunger strike since February 1. His wife Gulmira Aslanova told Caucasian Knot that her husband is complaining of kidney and stomach pains as a result of the hunger strike. 

Aslanov was arrested in 2019 and sentenced to 16 years in prison in November 2020 on bogus high treason charges. The State Security Service accused Aslanov of allegedly betraying his country by providing information to Iran. The journalist refutes the charges, saying he was arrested over his reporting on extortion by the members of the State Security Services of Azerbaijan. 

The journalist was additionally charged with Article 134 (threat to kill) of the Criminal Code. However, this accusation was dropped in court. 

Aslanov is the second journalist to have gone on a hunger strike in Azerbaijan. In addition to Aslanov, jailed journalist Afgan Sadigov marked the 95th day of the hunger strike on February 7.  This is Aslanov’s third hunger strike since his imprisonment. 

The Reporters Without Borders, issued a statement on February 9, calling on the Azerbaijani authorities to provide urgent medical assistance to Polad Aslanov.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists currently there are four journalists behind bars in Azerbaijan. They are Polad Aslanov, Afgan Sadigov, Ikram Rahimov (three-year sentence on extortion charges, chief editor of the news website Realliq) and Elchin Ismayilli (seven-year sentence on extortion charges, editor and founder of news website Kend). 

new decree on the State Control Information System

On January 30, President Ilham Aliyev, signed a decree “on the procedure for the operation of the State Control Information System”, reported Turan News Agency. The information system was set up in March of last year when President Aliyev, introduced it in a new order. At the time, local media reported that the order aims at introducing “additional measures to increase efficiency in public administration, informs the press-service of the Azerbaijani head of state.” 

On paper, the new system “serves to increase the efficiency of work in the Administration of the President, in the field of organizing state control and ensuring executive discipline, electronic monitoring of the status of execution of decrees, orders, and instructions of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, First Vice President, and the head of the Presidential Administration.” 

But what does it mean in reality?

A few things according to Khaled Aghaliyev. While there is a need for transparency, checks and balances on government implemented decisions, documents, and policies, whether the new system allows for that is yet to be seen. “This system should be accessible to everyone”, said Aghaliyev in an interview with Astna on February 6. However, the new decree does not provide “direct indications of this”. There is also the issue of track record.

Aghaliyev in his interview mentioned the law “On Freedom of Information” that was adopted 15 years ago. However, over the years, too many changes were made to the law that its accountability power over holders of information which also includes the president as well as all other officials, has been weakened. Had the provisions of the law on Freedom of Information worked, there would be no need for creating a new system believes Aghaliyev. 

As for access to the information, a series of amendments to the Law on Right to Obtain Information have hindered the right to access information. As a result of these changes, access to information was only allowed in cases when the request did not contradict the protection of political, economic, military, financial, credit, and currency interests of the Azerbaijan Republic. That in addition, “preserving public order, health, and morality, as well as rights and freedoms of other persons, commercial and other economic interests, the purposes of securing reputation and impartiality of the court and proper continuance of preliminary investigation on criminal cases.” But the use of such expressions as “protection of interests in political, economic, military, monetary and currency policy fields” according to this review of Azerbaijan’s national legislation on access to information, is not only not acceptable but, in fact, goes against the Constitution of Azerbaijan.

These shortcomings have been highlighted in a series of reports produced by local organizations such as the Center for Legal Initiatives. In its 2016 report, the organization also reported that the new amendments categorized information on financial transactions data as private information and therefore restricted for access. Meanwhile, an amendment to the laws of state register of legal persons and to the Tax Code, classified information about founders of commercial legal entities and commercial stakes as confidential. 

Under normal circumstances, the most effective, the proven control mechanism is the mass media. However, in Azerbaijan, independent media, is often silenced, through various forms of persecution, including arrests, detentions, intimidation tactics, blackmail, and more. As a result of persistent threats to an independent media environment Azerbaijan’s rankings on global media freedom rankings have been poor, often described as not free, or partially free. 

The same applies to online media platforms, many of which have been targeted over the years and since 2017, consistently blocked by government bodies. 

Why now? 

On February 1, President Aliyev in an interview with national television AzTV said, a new approach has begun within the state administration. “My patience running thin”, said the President in an interview, adding the need for public control. He has said this before too, like during the trip to Mashtaga village outside of the capital Baku in 2018, where yet again, President Aliyev talked about strengthening public control. Then in 2019, he repeated the urgency of such control mechanisms during a meeting with the Cabinet of Ministers. But since his ascent to power in 2003, President Aliyev, has himself (through presidential decrees and orders) deliberately weakened public oversight. That in addition, to harassment of non-governmental organizations, tightening of domestic legislation, the arrest of activists and outspoken critics of the government, among them journalists and rights efenders – have all been taking place under his watch. Perhaps a good place to start would have been naming the new system, not State Control but Public Control? 

Regardless, Azerbaijan Internet Watch shares the concerns over the applicability and efficiency of the new system in the absence of reforms and will continue to monitor the developments regarding the newly set up system on information controls. 

inspired lawmakers rush to discuss social media regulations in Azerbaijan

On May 29, now former President Trump signed an executive order to “pressure regulators, including the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission, to come up with new rules that would curtail that immunity.” The order came shortly after Twitter fact-checked Trump’s tweet “over a false assertion that mail-in voting leads to widespread fraud.” 

Two days later, lawmakers in Azerbaijan were back to discussing the possibility to control social media platforms. Speaking at the parliament session, member of the parliament and the ruling New Azerbaijan Party Siyavush Novruzov said, the US was finally seeing that the seeds it has been sowing across the world, are turning against America. He reminded the parliament that he raised the issue before, recalling saying, foreign-based entities, bear no responsibility for their actions while supporting terrorism, assassination attempts against world leaders, and extremism. The MP did not give examples to specific cases and instead said at the time when the issue of controlling social media platforms was mentioned, it was interpreted as a violation of the freedom of the media. 

Speaking on the same issue, another MP Javid Osmanov, said, it was time for Azerbaijan to adopt a similar law especially to strengthen the national security in Azerbaijan. 

This is not the first time Azerbaijan lawmakers discuss introducing regulatory measures for social media platforms. 

In 2018, MP Hadi Rajabli, said social media platforms that engage in anti-government propaganda must but controlled. Rajabli has previously criticized social networks. “Harmful factors such as social media, Facebook, messenger apps and the like play a big role in the disintegration of families, divorces, and early marriages, because many people use social media for entertainment and end up facing serious problems,” Rajabli said during one parliamentary discussion.  Another MP Araz Alizada went as far as to claim, normal people do not use social media platforms. 

In 2017, Azerbaijani lawmakers approved criminal charges for defamation against the president on social media platforms, the use of censorship during martial law; and restricting media access to information on private property and businesses. According to changes to Article 321(1) of the Criminal Code, a maximum sentence of five years in prison was introduced for defaming or humiliating the honor and dignity of the president in mass media and social media. The changes also increased the fine from AZN1500 to AZN2500.

In February 2018, ahead of the snap presidential election, the Central Election Commission Chairman Mazahir Panahov expressed concern over social media platforms. He claimed they have grown uncontrollably and are difficult to regulate during the election process. At a National Parliament Human Rights Committee meeting in January 2017, Chairman of the Press Council Aflatun Amashov discussed creating legislation to monitor and regulate bloggers and social media platforms. Other members of parliament supported the potential legislation, saying that there is a “serious need to regulate this field.” While no pieces of legislation have been proposed this is likely to change in the upcoming February discussions at the national parliament.

In 2015, the Ministry for Communication and Hight Technologies (now the Ministry of Transportation, Communication and High Technologies) said it will require some social media and instant messaging services, including Facebook, WhatsApp, Skype, and Viber, to obtain a license in order to operate in Azerbaijan. While no progress has been towards enforcing this it would be interesting to watch the upcoming discussions at the parliament. 

Azerbaijani lawmakers have been eyeing Turkey’s recent laws on social media including the controversial bill adopted in July 2020 that requires social media giants, establish local representatives, store user data locally and comply with orders for content removal, face fines and slowed bandwidth in the case of noncompliance. 

resident of Mingachevir city beaten by the police over social media posts

January 29, 2021 – Resident of Mingachevir city, Sardar Asgarov was taken to local police, beaten, and forced to apologize over his criticism of the local government officials on social media. 

In an interview with Meydan TV, a Berlin-based online news platform, covering Azerbaijan, Asgarov said, a man showed up at his door on January 26 in the morning telling him, he was coming from the Mingachevir Employment Center. Once Sadigov stepped outside of his door, three other men showed up and attacked Sadigov. 

According to Sadigov he was then taken to the local police where the city’s deputy chief, Javid Talibov slapped him, used derogatory language and told him who was he to criticize local administration, and the head of the police on social media. “He then forced me to kneel, and to apologize while Talibov was filming me with his phone,” Sadigov told Meydan TV. 

The same day, Sadigov was fined and let go. 

Sadigov said both his mobile phones that were taken by the police were formated and his accounts on social media platforms were deleted. “The deputy chief told me if I criticize local authorities again, he will find a way to arrest me.”

In the meantime, Mingachevir City Police told Meydan TV, Sadigov was detained for hooliganism and fined for 50AZN and that Sadigov’s claims about violence and threats he was subject to at the police are not true. Similarly, the city administrative office refuted Sadigov’s claims that he was detained on the orders of the office. The office also said they consider Sadigov’s comments on social media as slander. 

Sadigov’s posts on social media criticized one of the city government departments for withholding salaries of women employees, and not helping them during the pandemic. Sadigov also criticized the city police for preventing these women from protesting.  

free or not free – the battle over internet freedom in Azerbaijan

On January 26, during the appointment of the new head for the Ministry of Transportation, Communication and High Technologies, Rashad Nabiyev, president Ilham Aliyev in a video conference boasted about free, uncensored internet in Azerbaijan. “Everybody knows, internet in Azerbaijan is free, there is no censorship, no restrictions,” said the President during the video conference. 

But international watchdogs, as well as local activists, beg to disagree. In its most recent ranking of Internet Freedom across the world, Freedom House ranks Azerbaijan as “not free”. Among some of the factors contributing to this ranking are outdated infrastructure, state control over information and communication technology, government manipulation of the online information landscape, presence of blocked websites, jailed critics over their online activism to name a few. Similarly, activists and opposition party representatives say, if President Aliyev’s claims are true, then why do activists are called in for questioning after their critical posts on social media platforms? Or why do opposition activists experience internet disruptions during rallies? 

And this has been the case for over a decade now. Over the years of exercising control over internet freedom in Azerbaijan, the ruling Baku has successfully relied on defensive techniques that require widespread filtering and direct censorship; legal measures techniques that often involve the use of legislation on defamation, and slander to deter users of online platforms from posting critical of the government content; and finally, offensive techniques, such as cyber-attacks against civil society. 

These techniques, defined by Ronald Deibert, is how authoritarian regimes have become savvy at restricting access to their users relying on technology, legal and extralegal techniques, described above. Suffice to say, that these techniques are widely implemented not just in Azerbaijan but other countries where governments exercise full control over the internet domain. Moreover, all of these restrictions have been documented in recent years, concluding a rather stark difference to what President Aliyev claimed on January 26, that Azerbaijan’s internet freedom is far away from being free.

This is also reflected in the work carried out by Azerbaijan Internet Watch. Just within last year alone, Azerbaijan Internet Watch has documented and reported on the score of cases where the evidence suggests to the contrary of what President Ilham Aliyev claimed last month. From discussions on control mechanisms over social media to arrests and intimidation of activists for their online criticisms to internet restrictions and disruptions, and the use of sophisticated surveillance technology to stifle independent voices. That in addition to lack of quality infrastructure and services, is yet to indicate, how does the President come to a conclusion that access to the Internet is free and unrestricted. 

forced posts removal from Facebook continue in Azerbaijan

On January 13, Elmir Abbasov, a member of NIDA movement, was taken against his will to local police station in the city of Sumgayit where he was questioned over his Facebook post about president Ilham Aliyev.

In his interview with Azadliq Radio, Abbasov said, he was on his way to a shop when a man told Abbasov to get into the car for a chat at the police station. Abbasov, who said without a warrant he won’t be going anywhere, was then shuved into the car and taken to the station by force.

Abbasow spent the next two hours at the police station, where he was informed that the reason for his interrogation was a Facebook post, he wrote about the President. He was told to immediately delete the post. 

AIW spoke with Abbasov about the content of the post which is no longer available on the social media platform.

Under normal circumstances this post would not be considered critical but in Azerbaijan, the sensitivity around certain personalities as in the case of the president are common and not tolerated. 

In the case of Abbasov’s post, it was a comment about an economic system heavily reliant on hydrocarbons. This has been voiced by international financial institutions, experts and pundits alike for a long time.

Similarly, Abbasov’s post stressed the country’s economy, over reliance to fluctuating oil price as a result of its dependence and recommended that the president takes recommendations by independent economists seriously rather than dismiss them. 

Three days before Abbasov was taken to the police and ordered to delete his post from Facebok, one freelance journalist [name omitted due to safety concerns] was told to delete a Facebook post, that was critical of the local law enforcement. Namely, the journalist desrcibed seeing one officer, take a bribe from a man stopped on the street as part of the COVID measures in place. The source told AIW, the measure was taken in an attempt to keep the reputation of the local agency clean.