political activist kidnapped, facebook post deleted under duress [update April 29]

Bakthiyar Hajiyev is a political activist from Azerbaijan. In February 2020, AIW published this story about threats and intimidation Hajiyev was facing. Despite numerous requests made to the relevant government institutions to investigate, Hajiyev’s complaints remained unanswered. Instead, attacks continued. In September 2021, Hajiyev was reportedly threatened by Baku Police Chief Alekper Ismayilov over a Facebook post, in which the activist criticized the Ministry, specifically the Minister of the Interior, Vilayat Eyvazov for delaying a response to his complaints. 

On April 21, 2022, two years after, Hajiyev’s initial reports of cyberharassment, physical threats, and intimidation, the activist was kidnapped, taken to an undisclosed location, and was forced to remove several Facebook posts under duress that criticized the Ministry of the Interior, including the minister himself, for failing to investigate his case and being the perpetrators of threats and attacks against him. 

In a lengthy Facebook post, the activist described in detail what happened to him that day: 

I was attacked by an unknown man on April 21, around 11 pm on my way home. That moment, 4 men, their faces hidden under masks, forced me into their car. They placed a black sack over my head, taping over my eyes and mouth over the sack, tied my hands, and inserted earplugs over the sack so I don’t hear anything. After driving for a while, the men switched cars [Hajiyev suspected that the men changed too]. When they finally removed the sack, I was in what looked like a bathroom of a flat. They proceeded to humiliate me by using foul language. They demanded that I tell them who ordered me to write Facebook posts that were critical of the Minister of the Interior. When I told them I received orders from no one, they stripped me naked and proceeded to urinate on me. They demanded I delete the Facebook posts about Vilayet Eyvazov [the Minister of the Interior] and Fuad Muradov [Chairman of the State Committee on Work with Diaspora]. I deleted them all […] They filmed the whole time. In the meantime, they continued to threaten me. They told me if I continued to criticize the minister, they would rape me, and murder me. After that, they tied my eyes again and got rid of me in an undisclosed location where I was handed over to another group of four men who drove for a while and dropped me off somewhere hands still tied, and eyes covered. By the time I was able to untie myself, they were nowhere to be seen. There was nothing in the location where they disposed of me […] What happened to me, is a state-level crime, mafia-like measures. I immediately informed several government institutions and officials. I was assured that the head of state is aware of the matter. I was also told that the Minister of the Interior himself was going to meet me. A few days later, I was taken to the Ministry of the Interior where I met with the Minister’s Deputy, Ismet Aliyev. But 10-15 minutes into our conversation, it became clear that there was no need to continue the meeting because they did not tell me anything new. “We did not beat you, we used physical force,” “American police is worse. We are treating you humanely like a citizen,” “police beats people who want to hurt themselves everywhere across the world,” etc.

Hajiyev reiterated in his post that everything that has happened to him in the last two years, including most recently, the beating at the Baku City Police Department is all, the doing of the Ministry of the Interior. And until they prove him wrong, and the perpetrators are punished, the responsibility will be on Minister Eyvazov. “For anything that happens to me from now on, it is on the minister and the person who appointed him,” wrote Hajiyev. 

On April 24, Hajiyev attempted to review the CCTV footage from the street where he was kidnapped. In all the footage he reviewed, it appears parts of the recording – specifically the moment of his kidnapping – have been removed without the knowledge of the owners of security cameras. Describing this, Hajiyev wrote that the missing footage indicates “the crime was not committed by any criminal group, but by an organized, professional government agency.”

Earlier this month, Meta released its pilot quarterly Adversarial Threat Report. Among the countries mentioned in the report, is Azerbaijan where the platform said it has identified “a hybrid network operated by the Ministry of the Internal Affairs.” According to the document, this network relied on, what Meta refers to as, “Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior [CIB]” in combination with cyber espionage, “compromising accounts and websites to post” on behalf of the Ministry. The ministry’s press office was quick to dismiss the findings, saying the findings were fictitious.

*On April 28, Hajiyev was informed that the rotating security camera operated by the Ministry of the Interior as part of its “Safe City” system, was not rotating. 

religious activist pressed with drug charges over criticism of the government online [Update May 20, 2022]

[Update] On May 20, 2022, the Baku Grave Crimes Court, sentenced Humbatov to six years in jail. The religious activist was found guilty of drug possession charges.

Razi Humbatov, a member of the religious movement “Muslim Unity” went missing on July 7. Two days later, his whereabouts were confirmed to Meydan TV, by a human rights organization “Defense Line” as well as Humbatov’s lawyer, Javad Javadov. According to the human rights organization spokesperson Rufat Safarov, and the lawyer, Humbatov was taken to the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ main department for Combating Organized Crime where he was charged with drug possession charges. 

Speaking to Meydan TV, Rufat Safarov from the “Defense Line” said, there were allegations of torture against the religious activist. 

Humbatov’s lawyer said he intends to file a number of complaints including violation of rights, and withholding of information on Humbatov’s whereabouts. 

The “Muslim Unity” said in a statement shared on Facebook that Humbatov is not a drug user, nor did he ever sell drugs. If anything, he actively engaged in anti-drug campaigns. The movement indicated that the real reason behind his detention is the critical posts of the government Humbatov often shared on his Facebook.

On July 8, Humbatov was sentenced to four months in pre-trial detention. In a hearing on July 14 at the Baku Court of Appeals, the judge ruled against Humbatov’s release. 

If convicted, Humbatov is facing up to 12 years in prison reported Meydan TV. 

A number of international watchdogs have reported about torture and prosecution of scores of “Muslim Unity” members, including the movement’s leader Tale Bagirzade who was sentenced to twenty years in 2017.

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 

activist’s treatment at the psychiatric clinic extended

June 3, an activist who criticized the authorities for the lack of assistance to low-income families on social media was confined to a treatment at a psychiatric clinic.

Agil Humbatov, an activist with the Popular Front opposition party was first detained in March. After being questioned at the police, he was sent to a psychiatric clinic where he was held for two days and then let go. At the time, the local court did not rule for Humbatov’s required treatment. But the activist was detained the following day based on the appeal submitted to the issuing court by the head doctor. This time court ruled in favor of compulsory treatment. 

According to local reports, on June 2, the hospital decided to extend Humbatov’s say by another month. 

political activist’s partner harassed online [Last update June 17]

June 17, Amina Rustamzade, wife of activist Ilkin Rustmazade attempted suicide after numerous posts violating her right to privacy [see below]. Rustamzade overdosed herself with sleeping pills. She was taken immediately to a clinical center where doctors were able to stabilize her condition. While her condition is stable, the perpetrator behind the harassment against Amina remains at large. Ilkin Rustamzade wrote on his Facebook, that his wife, received yet another message from the same user with the message “If Ilkin is not silent, then what happened earlier will happen again.”

***

Ilkin Rustamzade is a former political prisoner and activist who spent six years in jail on bogus charges. He was arrested in May 2013 on alleged hooliganism charges. Additional charges – inciting violence and organizing mass disorder in connection with a peaceful protest in 2013 – were added during his pre-trial detention period. Rustamzade was sentenced to eight years in jail in 2014. He was recognized “prisoner of conscience” by International rights watchdog Amnesty International.

Authorities released Rustamzade in March 2019 following a presidential pardon decree. But threats and harassment against him continue.

On April 7, Rustamzade was contacted by this profile on Facebook. The person behind the profile introduced himself as an officer working for the Special Security Services in Azerbaijan. In the brief exchange this person had with Rustamzade, he kept removing all of the messages after they were sent. As a result, there are few screenshots that actually contain any evidence of this person threatening Rustamzade.

In one message, the user tells Rustamzade to stop the campaign the activist started on change.org. The campaign calls on the Azerbaijan authorities to allocate funds for families who have been affected by the global pandemic that has also reached Azerbaijan. When Rustamzade refused to remove the campaign, that is when the person threatened Rustamzade to humiliate him and his family.

Shortly after, a Facebook page (that has now been successfully removed) was set up, with intimate pictures of Rustamzade’s wife Amina Rustamzade and posts using humiliating language.

On April 8, a new Facebook page was set up with similar content. There is also, an Instagram post, that was shared by this account on the social media platform. In addition, his fiance’s profile appears to have been added to an escort website with personal information including phone numbers.

Also on April 8, Rustamzade’s father, Bakir Khalilov was taken by the police when they could not locate Ilkin Rustamzade at his family home. When Rustamzade called to speak with his father, the police interrupted the conversation, took the phone away from the father and told Rustamzade unless he comes to the station, his father will be arrested. When police showed up at his father’s house, they claimed Rustamzade violated quarantine laws by leaving the house without informing the law enforcement. This is a new regulation that was introduced on April 5. Rustamzade moved out on April 2. Three days before the regulation was set in place.

Meanwhile, Rustamzade’s father falls into a threatened group category due to his age and health condition. He just recently had heart surgery.

Although his father has been released since then, Rustamzade is concerned both his father, and himself could be arrested and that threats against his family will continue.

Journalist Khadija Ismayilova wrote her on Facebook that “Police clearly is eager to use these SMS restrictions to harass activists.”