inauthentic pages target independent online news platform – will Facebook take notice?

What does art, shopping retail, web design, sports, cosmetics, and e-commerce website have in common? Absolutely nothing, except these, are all various categories available on Facebook when setting up pages. Since 2019, Facebook removed the limit on the number of pages a user can set up. Unfortunately, Facebook did not take into account, how this innocent feature update, if in the wrong hands, can do harm. In the case of Azerbaijan, this is exactly what happened, when Meydan TV, an independent Berlin-based news platform, shared a call for applications for a program, held in partnership with Brussels-based human rights organization, International Partnership for Human Rights in February 2021.

The project aimed to bring together journalists, writers, bloggers, and content creators from Azerbaijan willing to produce thematic media pieces on civic, social, cultural, and political issues from the country. It was an opportunity for young content creators to get some international exposure and work with professional mentors. 

Meydan TV shared the announcement via its Facebook page [the website is blocked in Azerbaijan since 2017]. Similarly, IPHR shared the announcement on its website. Very quickly the post received hundreds of comments. Most if not all were negative. The commenters accused Meydan TV and IPHR of involving Azerbaijani youth in pro-Armenian propaganda. These users, described IPHR, as an organization that is a long-known enemy to the Azerbaijani people and the state. Accusing of brainwashing of the youth, IPHR and Meydan TV were blamed for the radicalization of youth and for their openly Armenian agenda. 

IPHR has worked in Azerbaijan and country-related projects for almost a decade, supporting civil society on the ground. 

IPHR shared the incident with AIW, and provided a list of screenshots taken from the post on Facebook. AIW, analyzed the screenshots of all comments to see whether these were genuine users, trolls, or bot accounts. On Facebook, although a user can create and manage multiple pages, only one personal account is allowed according to Facebook’s Community Standards. Whereas Twitter allows you to toggle between up to five accounts [but there are no pages there]. Finally, to clarify the terminology about bots and trolls, according to IJNET:

A bot is an automated social media account run by an algorithm, rather than a real person. In other words, a bot is designed to make posts without human intervention.

A troll is a person who intentionally initiates online conflict or offends other users to distract and sow divisions by posting inflammatory or off-topic posts in an online community or a social network. Their goal is to provoke others into an emotional response and derail discussions.

Trolls may rely on bots to amplify their message.

A botnet is a network of bot accounts managed by the same individual or group. Those who manage botnets, which require original human input prior to deployment, are referred to as bot herders or shepherds.

In order to identify, whether any of the accounts actively engaging under Meydan TV’s post fit the descriptions above, AIW simply checked the names of users on Facebook. All of the names AIW analyzed were set up as pages on Facebook between July 2020 and February 2021. Only one name, among the list of analyzed users, was an actual profile, albeit likely a mistake or intentional, as it had only two posts made since July 2020, when the profile was set up.

Name Format Date created  Category
Emil Caniyev Page Feb.21 Sports and recreation
Fuad Alicanov Page Feb.21 Shopping & Retail
Sevinc Hesenli Page Feb.21 Beauty, Cosmetic & Personal Care
Ceyhun Haqverdiyev Page Feb.21 Shopping and retail
First Lady gözəllik salonu Page Feb.21 Beauty salon
Röya Nuriyeva Page Feb.21 Personal blog
Faiq Ferzaliyev Page Feb.21 Shopping and retail
Hesenoffa Govher Page Feb.21 Sports and recreation
Asadova Guler Page Feb.21 Shopping and retail
Abdulkarim Kerimzade Page Feb.21 Advertising agency
Aksana Rasulova Page Feb.21 Shopping & Retail
Medine Yaqubova  Page Feb.21 Shopping & Retail
Aytan Yusuflu Page Feb.21 Shopping & Retail
Gunel Safarova  Page Feb.21 Public figure
Elnur Salayev  Page Feb.21 Shopping & Retail
Jala Samadova Page Feb.21 Shopping & Retail
Leyla Abasova Page Jan.21 Shopping & Retail
Konul Safarli   Page Jan.21 Arts & Entertainment
Rasad Fegan Page Jan.21 Shopping & Retail
Ceyran Khalilova Page Jan.21 Public & Government Service (at least this one picked the right affiliation)
Humbatova Aybeniz Page Jan.21 Shopping & Retail
Akif Gurbanli Page Jan.21 Personal blog
Aydan M-ova Page Jan.21 Shopping & Retail
Turan Ceferli Page Jan.21 Shopping & Retail
Hesenova Guler Page Jan.21 Shopping & Retail
Kerimli Turane Page Jan.21 Shopping & Retail
Murad Gurbanov Page Jan.21 Shopping & Retail
Aytac Pashayeva Page Jan.21 Arts & Entertainment
Mammadova Gulu Page Jan.21 Shopping & Retail
Nuri Amirli Page Jan.21 Sports and recreation
Iska Salimov Page Dec.20 Not a Business
Gunay Haqverdiyev Page Dec.20 Go-Kart Track
Safura Alizade Page Dec.20 Sports and recreation
Anar Mammadov Page Dec.20 Shopping & Retail
Namiq Asadov Page Nov.20 Men’s Clothing Store
Ildirim Agayev Page Nov.20 E-commerce Website
Neymat Azizov Page Nov.20 Gaming video creator
Kenan Babayev Page Nov.20 Interior Design Studio
Aslan Nuriyev Page Nov.20 real estate agent
Qafqaz Rahimli Page Oct.20 Personal Blog
Jama Bagirova Page Oct.20 Design and fashion
Ceyhun R-li Page Aug.20 e-commerce Website
Cabanov Cabbar  Page Aug.20 health and wellness website
Vasif Agabeyli Profile Jul.20 Vasif Agabeyli

In October of last year, Facebook whistleblower Sophie Zhang wrote a memo about how the Facebook company was ignoring manipulation of its platforms by political parties and heads of government. Weeks after Zhang was fired and leaked this information, Facebook removed more than 1,000 accounts and close to 8,000 pages which were part of a massive network of fake activity connected to Azerbaijan’s ruling party reported BuzzFeedNews. At the time Facebook said the network was likely operated by the youth branch of the ruling New Azerbaijani Party. These accounts and pages were used “to post comments that attacked opposition figures and independent media” and boost the government’s image.

According to BuzzFeedNews, Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of security policy, “said the close to 8,000 pages used in the operation were set up to look like personal profiles and were used to leave comments. “This network appeared to engage individuals in Azerbaijan to manage pages with the sole purpose of leaving supportive and critical commentary on pages of international and local media, public figures including the opposition, and the ruling party of Azerbaijan, to create a perception of widespread criticism of some views and widespread support of others.”

What is striking however is despite the leak that was first flagged in 2018 by Sophie Zang, nothing was done about it. Only after she leaked the information that Facebook took measures by opening an internal investigation leaving Zang’s name out of it. But judging from attacks on Meydan TV’s post, the activity continues while damaging the reputation of others. 

popular citizen journalist and activist detained

On March 14, citizen journalist Mehman Huseynov and member of NIDA civic movement Ulvi Hasanli were detained by the police. Speaking to Turan News Agency, Mehman Huseynov said, police stopped both men while on an assignment, in Novkhani village, investigating Saleh Mammadov, a government official who is the Chairman of the Board of the Azerbaijan State Agency of Motor Roads. “We were stopped by the Road Patrol Service. They took us to the  Absheron District Police office [Novkhani village is situated in Absheron administrative district]. They questioned us there. Took my drone.” Huseynov also said, after getting questioned at the police department, they were taken to a location they did not know as their eyes were tied. At the time, journalist Ulviyya Ali reported that both men were transferred to the Grave Crimes Unit. 

After being held for several more hours both men were released, but authorities kept the drone. 

In their statement, the Ministry of the Interior said, the operation of the drone, was illegal, even though according to Azerbaijan’s national aviation authority, the State Civil Aviation Authority of Azerbaijan (CAA), flying a drone is legal in Azerbaijan. That being said, there is no law or state regulations on flying drones in Azerbaijan. According to this BBC Azerbaijan service story from 2019, before flying a personal drone, the owner must seek permision first from the State Civil Aviation Authority.

Mehman Huseynov is the author of a popular Sancaq TV, a socio-political magazine, which documents extensive corrupt practices and violations of human rights in Azerbaijan. 

In 2017, shortly after President Ilham Aliyev, appointed his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva as the First Vice President, Huseynov did a short video, asking male residents of Baku, whether they would appoint their wives as first secretaries if they were heads of companies. Huseynov was arrested the following day and later ended up serving a two-year prison term on charges of slander. Some speculated this satirical video was the real cause behind the journalist’s arrest. 

Ahead of his release from jail in 2019, the authorities attempted at keeping him behind bars, albeit unsuccessfully, and Huseynov was released. 

This is not the first time Huseynov was persecuted for his activities. He was questioned by the police countless times, threatened, intimidated, placed under a travel ban for five years, his personal documents were confiscated. The Human Rights House Foundation has documented in detail the reprisals against Huseynov in recent years. On March 9, AIW reported that Sancaq TV’s Facebook page was targeted in a series of hacking attempts and numerous fake Sancaq TV Facebook pages were set up. It was possible to remove only of those pages, as Facebook found no evidence that the other pages, were impersonating Sancaq TV due to lack of content shared on these pages.

Ulvi Hasanli is a member of NIDA civic union. He is also an editor of abzas.net, a news website covering human rights violations across the country. The website has been targeted since 2016 with DDoS attacks. In 2017 the website was blocked and the management team switched its extension to .org. Most recently the platform was targeted in February of this year. In April 2020, the website lost a month’s worth of published articles and some of the headlines of articles were changed.

Azerbaijan among 29 countries where internet shutdowns documented

On March 1, Access Now released the #KeepItOn report that documents incidents of internet shutdowns globally for the year 2020. 

According to the findings of the report:

  • there were 155 Internet shutdowns documented across 29 countries;
  • there were 28 complete internet blackouts; 
  • out of the 155 internet shutdowns, six incidents were bandwidth throttling;
  • there were at least 26 attempts to deny people access to social media and communication platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, Telegram, and other platforms;
  • new countries that have never shut down the internet before, like Tanzania, Cuba, and others, joined the internet shutdown shame list;

This year, Azerbaijan was also included among countries experiencing internet shutdowns.

According to the #KeepItOn FAQ,

“an internet shutdown is ‘an intentional disruption of internet or electronic communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unusable, for a specific population or within a location, often to exert control over the flow of information.’ An internet shutdown happens when someone — usually a government — intentionally disrupts the internet or mobile apps to control what people say or do.”

In this context, the report notes that one trend in 2020 was how governments deployed internet shutdowns “in response to ongoing violence — particularly in active conflict zones.” But this decision comes at a great cost. “Amid conflict, shutdowns can hide human rights violations or war crimes, thwart journalism, and put people’s lives in danger.” In Azerbaijan during the armed conflict with Armenia, the government of Azerbaijan announced it would disrupt internet access across the country. This decision, prevented numerous online news platforms, from publishing news, and their readers, from accessing news. The authorities encouraged the Azerbaijani people to only use and rely on government media platforms, and updates from the government institutions. None of which, experienced the same difficulties and challenges with access as did the normal users. 

Although the government in Azerbaijan did not ban the use of VPNs which became the top most downloaded apps during the war, it did encourage users not to rely on virtual private networks. Some of the companies refused to offer their services to customers using VPNs on their devices. When confronted, they refuted the claims this was the case. 

The new report also mentioned the role tech companies play in internet shutdowns globally, chief among them Sandvine and Allot. Azerbaijan has used the technology by both companies on different occasions and for different purposes. During the 44-day war, Sandine worked with Delta Telecom – Azerbaijan’s backbone internet provider, which is owned by the government to block access to live stream videos from YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. 

Given Azerbaijan has purchased both technologies, the chances of both of them being deployed during the most recent internet shutdown are high.  

*Sandvine provides Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) equipment that enabled shutdowns and website blocking. 

*Allot‘s DPI equipment can track applications in use, what is done while using these apps, the locations of users, the video content viewed, and contacts. It can also shut down entire networks, websites, services, slow down internet traffic so that people cannot transmit videos or photos, or block traffic altogether.

targeted harassment via telegram channels and hacked Facebook accounts [updated March 15]

[Updated] The targeting of women on telegram channels continues. On March 15, AIW was informed that the new target is the girlfriend of student activist Rustam Ismayilbeyli. Ismayilbeyli was targeted in September 2020 when a fake profile that belonged to the state security services informed Ismayilbeyli that personal information including intimate photos of Ismayilbeyli and his girlfriend will be sent to his friends and acquaintances unless he steps down from being an organizer of an upcoming rally and starts collaborating with them. Ismayilbeyli told AIW that those photos are now being circulated on the same telegram channels that earlier targeted journalist Fatima Movlamli, activists Gulnara Mehdiyeva and Narmin Shahmarzade.  

On March 14, Hikmat Hajiyev, assistant to President Ilham Aliyev said the local law enforcement is investigating the complaint by the activist Narmin Shahmarzade on the invasion of her privacy.

On March 13, activist, Vafa Nagi reported about her Facebook profile being compromised. Nagi, challenged local municipal authorities when she decided to run for the election in 2019 and won. For the first time, in Azerbaijan’s history of municipal elections [first municipal elections were held in December 1999] a representative of the feminist movement (or any activist) was elected. But her victory came at a cost. After attending one of the first meetings in her new role, Nagi realized there were inaccuracies in financial reports. When she asked that the head of the local municipality shared the full report she became a problem. This problem, needed a solution and so in an attempt to humiliate Nagi in her village, someone started posting her pictures from her Instagram across the village. There she was enjoying the sun on the beach, or elsewhere, smiling, looking happy. But that is not how the village community interpreted these photos. Azerbaijan has a complicated relationship with women’s rights, as evidence suggests especially from a recent wave of attacks against feminists who organized and attended the March 8th protest in the capital Baku. When the “picture campaign” ended with a fiasco, more serious measures were taken against Nagi. She was accused of defamation by an official and an employee of the rural house of culture. The two men claimed Nagi’s Facebook posts had damaged their business reputation. Although charges were dropped, the municipality did not stop there. The long battle ended when Nagi’s status as elected municipal official was taken from her. According to OC Media Nagi was deprived of her position in a vote by the municipal council on 20 August 2020, at the time, when she was receiving medical treatment abroad. Finally, Nagi was among the women who participated in a protest organized on March 8, 2021.

In addition, journalist Aysel Umudova, wrote on her Facebook profile, that police been visiting homes of all women identified during the rally including hers, except at the wrong address.

Another women’s rights activist targeted was Rabiyya Mammadova. After her interview with VoA Azerbaijan Service aired on March 13, she became a target of trolls accusing Mammadova of lying. In her interview, Mammadova explained how plainclothed officers stopped the taxi she was in, on her way to meet other women activists. The officer grabbed her by her throat and started suffocating her. She also received several blows to her head. As a result, she lost partial hearing in her right ear and her arm broken previously by the police was also injured. Mammadova was also among independent candidates who ran for municipal elections in 2019. But due to election fraud, she did not win and in January 2020 she was accused of defamation while the evidence of fraud Mammadova documented was dismissed. On the day of the election, she spotted a group of women, who were engaged in carousel voting, a common vote-rigging tactic. Mammadova called the group of women dishonest, which angered one of the women who demanded an apology and 1000AZN [600USD] in compensation. Her complaint was rejected in a court hearing. But this did not stop Mammadova from running in the snap parliamentary election in February 2020. She did not win. Nor did many of the independent candidates who ran for the national assembly. Defiant, Mammadova stood outside the Central Election Committee protesting election fraud. Other candidates joined Mammadova outside the CEC. By the evening, the police cordoned off the protesters and used violence to disperse the crowd. During the police intervention, scores of candidates, activists, and journalists were injured. Mammadova had her arm broken. Police denied anyone was injured despite reports and evidence.       

***

In recent days, at least three telegram channels were reported for sharing profane content targeting women in Azerbaijan. One channel called “Wretched men club” shared sensitive videos of journalist Fatima Movlamli, and exiled dissident blogger Mahammad Mirzali’s sister. Another group called “Expose bad-mannered girls” has targeted other women activists. A third one, targeted specifically one woman whose Facebook account was hacked shortly after the International Women’s Day march in Baku. 

In the past, other women journalists and activists were targeted in an online harassment campaign. 

Most recently activist Gulnara Mehdiyeva was targeted in a video shared via Facebook, containing a series of leaked private audio messages, that were stolen when Mehdiyeva’s social media accounts and emails were hacked last year

On March 9, Activist Narmin Shahmarzade’s Facebook profile was hacked, her name changed alluding to her interference with people’s private lives. The hackers flooded her Facebook feed with private messages, some of which were fake, and shared nude photographs of her, including at least one edited photo and audio. Several hours later, a Telegram channel was set up, sharing Shahmarzade’s intimate photos. In an interview with VoA Azerbaijan service, Shahmarzade said, “When my account was hacked, video footage and other posts with criticism of the ruling government were deleted. Then, my personal messages on Facebook messenger were compromised. Some of them were shared after being edited and taken out of context. My personal phone number was exposed and as a result, I received numerous calls and messages of threatening nature.” Shahmarzade said, she has informed the Ministry of the Interior and the State Security Services and describes what happened to her, a crime and that she will be going to court. Shahmarzade also pointed out to AIW that the hacker who compromised her Facebook profile is likely the same person or member of the same group that targeted activist Gulnara Mehdiyeva last year because at least one of the audio that was shared via Shahmarzade’s hacked Facebook account targeting her, does not even belong to the activist and that she never had access to. Contrary, it was among material hijacked from Gulnara Mehdiyeva. 

Among the women targeted, is also dissident blogger Mahammad Mirzali’s sister. Mirzali told AIW that the intimate video of his sister was leaked to harm him. “On February 15 my family members and I received several messages from a US number threatening me to stop my work. Otherwise, they told me they would release the videos of my sister. They told me they were not joking. They leaked the video on March 5. Later they shared the video on telegram channels. The same video was also sent to our relatives,” explained Mirzali. Mirzali suspects the authorities are behind this nasty campaign against his family. On March 14, Mirzali was reportedly stabbed by a group of unknown men. Mirzali is currently at the hospital. 

In September 2020, activist Rustam Ismayilbeyli was intimidated by someone who presented himself as an employee of state security that unless Ismayilbeyli did not stop his activism, intimate pictures of his girlfriend would be leaked online. 

In 2019, journalist Sevinc Osmangizi was the target of a smear campaign that variously accused her of being a double agent and working as a spy selling government secrets. 

The same year, journalist Fatima Movlamli was once again targeted with a fake Facebook page created under her name, sharing intimate photos and videos of her in her bed

In 2012, journalist Khadija Ismayilova was targeted in a similar campaign after receiving a package containing photos and videos of intimate nature all taken at her apartment. 

In 2010, at least two male journalists were targeted with sex tapes that were leaked and aired on prime-time television.

So far, only one journalist secured legal victory – Khadija Ismayilova. In January 2019, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the government of Azerbaijan must compensate Ismayilova for its failure to investigate attempts to blackmail her.

In all of the incidents mentioned here, the targets voiced their suspicion of the government involvement behind these attacks. Meanwhile, the authorities either refute or remain silent about these allegations.

Finally, according to the definitions of online harassment as noted in this PEN America manual on online abuse in the last few days, it is safe to say the following forms of harassment have been documented:

Cross-Platform Harassment:  coordinated and deliberately deployed across multiple social media and communications platforms, taking advantage of the fact that most platforms only moderate content on their own sites;

Dogpiling (cyber-mob attacks): When a large group of abusers collectively attacks a target through a barrage of threats, slurs, insults, and other abusive tactics.

  • Outrage/Shame Mobs: A form of mob justice focused on publicly exposing, humiliating, and punishing a target, often for expressing opinions on politically charged topics or ideas the outrage mob disagrees with and/or has taken out of context in order to promote a particular agenda. 

Cyberstalking: In a legal context, “cyberstalking” is the prolonged and repeated use of abusive behaviors online (a “course of conduct”) intended “to kill, injure, harass, intimidate, or place under surveillance with intent to kill, injure, harass, or intimidate” a target.

Dog Whistling: Using words or symbols with a double (or coded) meaning that is abusive or harmful, sometimes to signal a group of online abusers to attack a specific target.

Doxxing: The publishing of sensitive personal information online—including home address, email, phone number, social security number, photos, etc.—to harass, intimidate, extort, stalk, or steal the identity of a target.

Hacking: The unauthorized intrusion into a device or network, hacking is often carried out with the intention to attack, harm, or incriminate another individual by stealing their data, violating their privacy, or infecting their devices with viruses. When hacking is used to perform illegal activities or intimidate a target, it is a cybercrime.

Nonconsensual intimate images (aka revenge port):  Nonconsensual pornography is “the distribution of private, sexually-explicit images [or videos] of individuals without their consent”.

Online Sexual Harassment (aka, Cybersexual Abuse, Gender-Based Harassment):  

Sextortion: A form of black mail in which an abuser threatens “to expose a nude or sexually explicit image in order to get a person to do something.” 

Unsolicited Pornography: Sending sexually explicit or violent images and videos to a target.

Unwanted Sexualization: Sending “unwelcome sexual requests, comments and content” to a target.

how to silence corruption: the tale of one citizen journalist and a government that does not want people to know the truth

The tale of corruption in Azerbaijan is no news to anyone familiar with the country’s history of money laundering, slush funds, and other fraudulent misconduct. From countless investigations, such as Caviar Diplomacy, Azerbaijani Laundromat and Panama Papers, and most recently OCCRP report about massive weapons deal with Congo-Brazzaville, the extent of involvement of key leadership figures of Azerbaijan in numerous financial schemes, deals, and investments, is astonishing. For years, the journalists who have been involved in these investigations have been and continue to be targeted. The most recent target is Mehman Huseynov, 28, a popular citizen journalist, and editor-in-chief of the SANCAQ, a socio-political magazine, which documents extensive corrupt practices and violations of human rights in Azerbaijan. Huseynov, shares his findings in short videos, explained in simple language, often with a touch of humor.

In 2017, shortly after President Ilham Aliyev, appointed his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva as the First Vice President, Huseynov did a short video, asking male residents of Baku, whether they would appoint their wives as first secretaries if they were heads of companies. Huseynov was arrested the following day and later ended up serving a two-year prison term on charges of slander. Some speculated this satirical video was the real cause behind the journalist’s arrest. 

Ahead of his release from jail in 2019, the authorities attempted at keeping him behind bars, albeit unsuccessfully, and Huseynov was released. 

This is not the first time Huseynov was persecuted for his activities. He was questioned by the police countless times, threatened, intimidated, placed under a travel ban for five years, his personal documents were confiscated. The Human Rights House Foundation has documented in detail the reprisals against Huseynov in recent years. 

Realising, physical surveillance, and intimidation were not enough, Huseynov’s Sancaq TV became a target.

Hacking alert: Instagram

Due to the popularity of his channel [Sancaq TV has a large following on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube], there have been numerous attempts to break-in into Sancaq TV’s social media accounts. Huseynov was able to keep his accounts secure until he took time off from social media ahead of a medical operation after being diagnosed with cancer. The treatment and the operation were successful. It was time, for Huseynov to slowly pick up on where he left off.

Little did he know, that one of Sancaq TV’s social media accounts was compromised. “Unfortunately, government officials took advantage of my illness and in my absence hacked Sancaq TV’s Instagram account.  They sent fake messages on behalf of Instagram to my Azerbaijani mobile number and gained access,” explained Huseynov in his recollections to AIW.  

Months after Huseynov reported about the interception, it was possible to restore access to Sancaq TV’s Instagram account. 

Hacking alert: Facebook 

Since his recovery from cancer, Huseynov returned to Azerbaijan, from where he continued working on investigations into government corruption. Sancaq TV has featured some 13 separate investigations since then.

These investigations however have once again triggered perpetrators to silence Huseynov by taking over Sancaq TV’s Facebook page. While they have been unsuccessful in hacking the page, several fake Facebook pages called Sancaq TV have been created. The “owners” of these accounts are using these pages to report the original Sancaq TV Facebook page in an attempt to take it down on the grounds, that it is fake. Sancaq TV’s most recent expose explores a man named Gorxmaz Huseynov, the head of Azerbaijan Water Supply company, whose personal wealth is measured in multimillion-dollar businesses, from hospitals to tourism companies with zero accountability and transparency. 

So far, Huseynov remains defiant in his fight against corruption in Azerbaijan but so do the perpetrators behind the digital persecution campaign. Sancaq TV’s social media accounts can be accessed on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube

one blogger and activist arrested

On March 2, blogger Elchin Hasanzade and activist actor Ibrahim Salamov were sentenced to eight months in prison on accounts of slander and insult of the Criminal Code by the Sheki Court of Appeals. 

The two men are accused of criticizing a man named Shahriyar Mustafayev, who heads the Housing Department of the city of Mingachevir in their articles and social media posts. Both men, claim the allegations are bogus and that they are being punished for exposing the arbitrariness of Mingachevir city officials instead. 

Blogger Elchin Hasanzade, who has worked with some of the local papers in the city of Sumgayit, prior to his temporary relocation to Mingachevir, claims he was kicked out of an apartment he lived, in Mingachevir because of his criticisms against local officials online. And that it is the head of the city administration who is behind their arrest.

The head of the housing department refutes the claims in the meantime.  

The case dates back to November 2020, when the head of the housing department appealed to the local court. At the time, both men were sentenced to one year of correctional labor. The private prosecutor was dissatisfied with the verdict and appealed against the aggravation of Hasanzadeh’s and Turksoy’s sentences.

Correction: the previous version of this article referred to Ibrahim Salamov as an activist. Salamov is also a theater actor at the Mingachevir State Drama Theater. 

anews.az editor sentenced to three and a half years [updated March 20]

[Updated] According to Azadliq Radio, Gambarov’s sentence was commuted on March 19 replacing the original sentence of 3.5 years with 1 year and 2 months of restricted freedom taking into account that Gambarov already served five months behind bars. The journalist will have to be home from 11 pm until 7 am. The charges were replaced from Article 221.3 (hooliganism committed with the use of a weapon or subjects)  of the Criminal Code to Article 221.2.2 (hooliganism committed with resistance to representative of the authority).  

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 [update March 9]

[Update] On March 1, in response to a legal complaint filed by Gulnara Mehdiyeva’s lawyers the Ministry of Internal Affairs informed the defender that the opening of a criminal case on her claim is not planned

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 [Updated March 4]

[Update] On March 3, Sumgayit Appeal Court held a hearing in the case of arrested N!DA member Elmir Abbasov. During the hearing, Abbasov recounted how he was taken off the street, beaten, and humiliated by the local police and how they planted drugs on him. The presiding judge, Elman Ahmadov, prevented journalists, civil society representatives, and Abbasov’s family members from entering the courtroom reported Azadliq Radio. Abbasov’s lawyer, Elchin Sadigov, said, this constitutes a violation of the court’s transparency principle. All of the lawyer’s motions were dismissed, including a request to study camera footage on the day of the arrest, as well as the questioning of Rauf Babashov, the Deputy Chief of Sumgayi City Police department. 

The case launched against the activist claims, Abbasov was detained as a suspect in the theft. The activist rejects the case brought against him. In his statement, Abbasov said, he went to buy bread from the market, when he was stopped by plainclothed men. They told Abbasov he was to come with them to the police station. When he refused to follow the men, asking for an official warrant, he was shoved into the car and taken to the city police department. In his statement, Abbasov said after arriving at the city police department he was held there for five hours, after which he was transferred to police station no.4. “They threatened me. One police officer named Bahruz started shaking me and using derogatory language on our way to the station. When we got out of the car, he dragged me by my jacket. Then he started hitting me at the entrance to the station. At that moment another officer, under the pretext of rescuing me, dropped drugs in my pocket,” recounted Abbasov in court. 

Police claim they found drugs on Abbasov during their search. But Abbasov’s lawyer, Elchin Sadigov argues the delay in full body search, even by half an hour after an arrest is suspicious. Especially when Abbasov remained under police custody for several hours and was searched hours later. 

Despite the lawyer’s motion to release Abbasov, the court rejected the appeal and kept its previous decision in the case of the activist  – one-month administrative detention. 

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.