political activist and blogger detained

On June 23, Elchin Ibrahimli, a member of an opposition party was detained according to local news reports. He was sentenced to 30 days in administrative detention the following day, said members of the party. According  to reports, the activist allegedly resisted police and as a result was sentenced on charges of resisting the police according to the Code of Administrative Offenses, Article 535. 

In a statement issued by the Ministry of the Interior, the blogger is said to have failed to show up in person at the police station despite numerous invitations. 

According to Azadliq Radio, Azerbaijan Service for Radio Liberty, Ibrahimli was arrested from his home. Speaking to the radio, Faig Jafarzade, the party regional head, said Ibrahimli is an active social media user and that his arrest is rooted in his political activism.  

activist and lawyer Ilham Aslanoglu arrested

On June 10, lawyer and activist Ilham Aslanoglu was sentenced to six months in prison on insult charges according to reporting by Turan News Agency. Aslanoglu is known for his public investigation of the Terter case – a “notorious case in which dozens of military officers accused of spying for Armenia were tortured.”

Aslanoglu’s lawyer speaking to Turan News Agency said the court found his client guilty based on a complaint filed on April 22 by Egyana Alekperova, who felt she was insulted while watching Aslanoglu’s video on YouTube channel AzerFreedom TV  about the Terter Case.

According to the Caucasian Knot website, this is Aslanoglu’s second sentence in one year on similar charges. The lawyer was sentenced to five months in January 2022 on charges of slander. Aslanoglu was released in March following the ruling by the court of appeal.

Aslanoglu’s lawyer told Caucasian Knot there were no alleged insults in the video. Aslanoglu was a guest on the show and therefore, was not responsible for comments made by other participants of the show, explained the lawyer.

Azerbaijan blocks RIA Novosti – Russian language state news website – citing violation of the national law [Updated June 13]

The Ministry of Digital Development and Transport blocked access to the Russian state-owned RIA-Novosti news site on June 3, according to reports by Azerbaijani media. In a statement issued the following day, June 4, the Ministry said the decision to block the Russian news website was a result of the news site running a story that was of defamatory nature against Azerbaijan.

According to Turan News Agency reporting, the Ministry statement said, “RIA Novosti violated Azerbaijani law On Information, Information, and Protection of Information.” Specifically, the statement was referring to an interview published by RIA Novosti with Artak Beglaryan, the Minister of State of the disputed territory of Karabakh. In response, Azerbaijan Foreign Ministry accused Russia of “spreading slanderous information against the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and promoting separatism” and violating “the 1997 Agreement on Friendship, Security, and Strategic Partnership between Azerbaijan and Russia, as well as the 2022 Declaration on Allied Cooperation, which requires both countries ‘to refrain from any activity directed against the principles of the UN Charter and each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,’ as well as ‘counter the threats of separatism’.”

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, both Russia and Azerbaijan have blocked or discussed blocking each other’s news sites. At the time of writing this post, at least six Azerbaijan news sites are currently blocked by the Russian internet regulator– Roskomnadzor. 

According to Article 13.3.3 of the law on Information, Informatization, and Protection of Information, in cases of existence of a real threat to the lawful interests of the state and society or in urgent cases when there is a risk to the life or health of people, the access to internet information resource is temporarily restricted directly by the Ministry of Transport, Communications and High Technologies [former name of the Ministry of Digital Development and Transport]. This restriction is applied without a court order. 

Who regulates content online in Azerbaijan? Legal analysis

exiled blogger says his life is in danger [updated June 3, 2022]

Tural Sadigli is an Azerbaijani blogger and political activist living in exile. He is the managing editor of a YouTube channel, Azad Soz – Free Word. According to Sadigli, his life is in danger as per Facebook posts, Sadigli shared on May 29 and 31 respectively.

Attention. There is a four-man squad sent to kill me in Germany. Somehow the squad acquired my home address in Germany and have been watching the house for the last week. They have been caught on security cameras. They were sent during Ilham Aliyev’s visit to Brussels. They must have thought that I will travel to Brussels from London and visit my apartment in Germany on the way. And catch me then. [German] Police already know their identities and two of them were checked by the police. Investigations continue. It is possible that they have already left [Germany].

I assure you that my life is in danger. They are really on to me this time. The order has come from the Presidential Apparatus. This is why, my parents, who both live in Baku will be staging a protest outside of the Presidential Apparatus at 14.00pm. I ask political parties, rights defenders, activists, journalists and everyone else, to come to their support.

In an interview with Meydan TV, the political activist said, it was his work exposing the extent of government corruption and specifically that of the ruling family that is the reason behind the targeting. “There is yet a journalist, or blogger, who has visited the home of the president abroad, knocked on its door and showed the audience in Azerbaijan the properties bought on their money.” The blogger also told Meydan TV that he was warned numerous times not to talk about Mehriban Aliyeva [the wife, and first Vice President] and her team. “They even tried to buy my silence, promising a monthly salary, as long as I did not touch the president and his family,” Sadigli told Meydan TV. 

This is not the first time Sadigli is threatened. Two years ago Sadigli was charged in absentia and authorities vowed to ask Interpol for his extradition. He was among a number of other activists targeted at the time. 

In addition to physical threats, Azad Soz, the YouTube vlog managed by Sadigli has also been targeted. In February of this year, AzNet Watch assisted AzadSoz to restore access to several videos that were taken off from YouTube in the absence of any explanation, and likely as a result of fake “complaints.” All of the videos were about SOCAR – the state oil company, its former president Rovnaq Abdullayev and his cousin Anar Alizada. The videos explain how Azad Soz discovered in their investigations that Anar Alizade owned a fake Turkish passport by another name. At the time of takedowns, Sadigli, told AzNet Watch that the only notification that he received from YouTube was an email telling him he was subject to NetzDG Appeals and that in all likelihood, it was the state oil company and Anar Alizada behind these requests.

Similar removals took place on the channel’s Facebook page. In both cases, the videos were restored following the intervention of a third party on behalf of AzadSoz. 

But the targeting did not stop there. According to Sadigli, the Facebook page was targeted again in April. “They [government sponsored trolls and actors] are studying old pictures, trying to identify violence that could be then reported by hundreds of fake accounts to Facebook as community guideline violations,” wrote the blogger on his Facebook on April 5.

Last month, in May, Azad Soz’s TikTok account was targeted as well. The account was shut down by the platform according to Sadigli. “You can shut them down, but we will open new ones. You won’t succeed at silencing Azad Soz [Free Word],” wrote Sadigli on Facebook. Previously AzadSoz was the target of inauthentic accounts on Facebook. The Guardian published this story explaining how Azad Soz’s Facebook account was flooded with over 1.5k comments over a post about two men sentenced to eight months. The Guardian investigation analyzed the top 300 comments and discovers that 294 out of 300 comments were inauthentic Facebook pages.

In 2018, Tural Sadigli, was among exiled political activists involved in a political campaign, called “Know Your Dictator.

activist exposing fake accounts on social media arrested, facing up to 12 years behind bars [with updates]

Razi Alishov was detained on May 28 in the city of Ganja. Two days later, the political activist and member of the opposition Popular Front party, was charged with Article 234.2 of the Criminal Code [Illegal purchase or storage with a view of selling, manufacturing, processing, transportation, transfer or selling of narcotics or psychotropic substances] and sentenced to two months in pretrial detention. 

The opposition Popular Front party considers the detention and the grounds for Alishov’s arrest, political. According to the party, Alishov often exposed fake social media accounts deployed by the state, targeting the party, reported Turan News Agency on May 30. The activist also often identified stolen or hijacked social media accounts of opposition activists.  

While the Ministry of the Interior has confirmed the arrest of the political activist, it has denied that the motives behind the arrest are political. Noting the party member’s arrest, the leader of the Popular Front, Ali Karimli said the arrest was part of the rotating door policy referring to a number of recently released political prisoners and the need to “fill out the emptied spots in prisons.” 

On May 27, President Ilham Aliyev signed a presidential pardon decree. Among 168 prisoners released were also several political prisoners, reported Meydan TV.

On June 2, the appeal court in the city of Ganja reviewed Alishov’s complaint appeal where the activist was informed that the original charge of drug possession was aggravated to Articles 234.4.1 and 234.4.3 of the Criminal Code [Manufacturing, purchase, storage, transfer, transportation or selling the drug by a group of persons or organized group with a view of illegal manufacturing and processing of narcotics or psychotropic substances].

Relevant articles of the penal code

Article 234. Illegal manufacturing, purchase, storage, transportation, transfer, or selling of narcotics, psychotropic substances;

234.1. Illegal purchase or storage without a purpose of selling of narcotics or psychotropic substances in a quantity (amount) exceeding necessary for personal consumption – is punished by imprisonment for a term up to three years.

234.2. Illegal purchase or storage with a view of selling, manufacturing, processing, transportation, transfer, or selling of narcotics or psychotropic substances – is punished by imprisonment for a term from three up to seven years with confiscation of property or without it.

234.3. Manufacturing, purchase, storage, transfer, transportation, or selling drugs with a view to illegal manufacturing and processing of narcotics or psychotropic substances – is punished by imprisonment for a term up to three years with confiscation of property or without it.

234.4. The acts provided by articles 234.2 and 234.3 of the present Code, committed:

234.4.1. on preliminary arrangement by group of persons or organized group;

234.4.2. repeatedly;

234.4.3. in large amount – is punished by imprisonment for the term from five up to twelve years with confiscation of property.

 

blogger charged with drug possession sentenced to four months [Updated June 28]

[Update June 28] On June 25, the District Court rejected Ramazanov’s request to be moved under house arrest. The blogger’s lawyer Elchin Sadigov said they will appeal the decision.

[Update June 13] According to reporting by Turan News Agency, Ramazanov was taken to the Republican Psychiatric Hospital for tests. Ramazanov’s lawyer said this was not uncommon given the charges leveled against Ramazanov. 

On May 21, a court in Baku charged blogger Rashad Ramazanov (pen-name Rashad Hagigat Agaaddin) with illegal drug possession in large quantity, with an intention to sell under criminal code article 234.4.3, sentencing the blogger to four months in pretrial detention. Ramazanov was detained on May 20 according to reports by local media.

This is not the first time, Ramazanov has been detained. In 2013, the blogger was sentenced to nine years in jail on similar charges. At the time, rights groups, described the charges as trumped up. Officials claimed to have found heroin on the blogger. Ramazanov was released from jail in 2019 as part of a pardon issued by President Ilham Aliyev.

Ramazanov, often criticized the state on social media. According to human rights defender Rufat Safarov, the charges leveled against the blogger this time, are also related to his active criticism of the state.

If found guilty the blogger is facing anywhere between 5 to 12 years behind bars.

[Update] According to Turan News Agency, blogger Ramazanov said he was tortured in police custody. The ministry of the interior denied the claims. On May 27, the Baku appeal court reviewed the blogger’s case but ruled to keep Ramazanov behind bars reported Turan News Agency.

Who regulates content online in Azerbaijan? Legal analysis

In this new legal analysis, we specifically look into content regulation on the internet carried out by the Prosecutor’s office and how the measures in place, silence free speech often relying on the use of a restrictive law on Information, Informatization, and Protection of Information.

As the use of the Internet grew in Azerbaijan, so did the measures adopted by the government to regulate the internet space, through legal changes that would tighten existing regulations. As such the ranking of Azerbaijan in Freedom House Freedom on the Net report as “not free” is indicative of the deteriorating internet freedom in several directions, including control of the ICT market, infrastructural challenges, restrictive legal measures, accounts of harassment of citizens for online criticism, and more. Numerous evidence-based reports point out the extent of coordinated, and deliberate efforts deployed by the government in Azerbaijan to restrict free speech on the users of social networks, journalists, and media at large in recent years.  

Currently, two laws regulate what constitutes prohibited information on the internet and the liability for violating these requirements. These are the Law on Information, Informatization, and Protection of Information, which defines the requirements and responsibilities for individuals; and the Law on Media, which defines the (almost) similar and additional requirements and responsibilities for journalists and media.

In addition, the presidential decree dated February 22, 2022, instructed the Ministry of Justice to prepare and submit a draft law on measures for violating information and media legislation on the internet to the government within a month. The law is yet to be adopted and concerns over its text and procedural implementation give ground to worry for a new restrictive law to be adopted not to mention its implications to further stifle free speech online.

Until then, an uptick in recent months, of cases in which social media users have faced punitive measures for their online activism indicates that the Prosecutor General Office has taken on a temporary role of taking measures against activists, journalists and media within the scope of laws on information and media. As such we decided to dedicate our next legal analysis report to the practices and activities of the general prosecutor’s office within the framework of national and international legislation. 

***

In Azerbaijan, the Code of Administrative Offences and the Criminal Code regulate the legal sanctions against violations of the Law on Information, Informatization, and Protection of Information. However, as noted above, an uptick in administrative penalties and warnings issued to media, journalists, and social network users in recent months shows that the main government institution carrying out monitoring, and handing out penalties and warnings has been the Prosecutor General’s Office.

This frequent and at times, aggressive interference by the prosecutor’s office, which normally is in charge of investigating criminal cases and is the prosecuting authority, itself raises a number of concerns with regard to freedom of expression and the media.

The prosecutor’s office argues that the official warnings issued by the institution are a precautionary measure for violating existing. It is worth noting, that laws here are also broadly defined. Local human rights lawyers and experts, suspect, that the prosecutor’s office relies on existing bills on Information, Informatization, and Protection of Information as well as the Media, however, it could also refer to additional articles of the Criminal Code. Therefore, the legality of these acts is questionable.

***

Recent amendments to the Information Law

On  December 27, 2021, the Azerbaijani parliament (Milli Məclis) adopted new amendments to the Law of the Republic of Azerbaijan On Information, Informatization, and Protection of Information (30-VIQD).

One of the amendments includes expanding the measures against the prohibited content*

*Neither the previous nor the iterated version of the law clearly defines what is prohibited content leaving extensive room for the relevant state actors to decide, and based on these overt decisions,  restrict freedom of expression online.  

Previously, the owner of the internet information resource and domain name, and the hosting provider were responsible for removing (deleting) the information (specific content such as articles) from the information resource (website). The iteration obligates the owner, and the hosting provider, to block access to that content (article) on its website (Article 13-2.4, and 13-2.5).

As the law on information determines a list of grounds that define which content is prohibited, it also sets obligations for domain and information resource owners and host providers to remove or block the content upon receiving the warning from the executive authorities. In cases when content removal or blocking is not implemented, relevant executive authority applies to the court. As such, it is the judicial powers making a final judgment on the (il)legality of reported content rather than the executive power. This also means that the warnings issued by the executive authorities to the information resource and domain owners and host providers must not introduce liability. Because, when a court draws its final decision, it applies the principle of proportionality ensuring that different interests are balanced against each other.

Prohibited content as defined in the Law on Information (Article 13.2) and the Law on Media (Article 14). 

Law on Media: 

14.1.1. open calls must not be made for a forcible change of the constitutional order of the Republic of Azerbaijan, the disintegration of its territorial integrity, forcible seizure or retention of power, mass riots;

14.1.2. there must be no disrespect for the state symbols of the Republic of Azerbaijan;

14.1.3. norms of the state language must be observed;

14.1.4. discrimination on grounds of race, religion, origin, gender, ethnicity, and other discrimination must not be promoted, and also no open calls must be made for inciting ethnic, racial, or religious hatred;

14.1.5. terrorism, religious extremism, violence, and cruelty must not be propagated, and also, information aimed at financing terrorism, organizing or conducting training for terrorist purposes must not be disseminated, and open calls for terrorism must not be made;

14.1.6. words and expressions, gestures with immoral lexical (swearing) content must not be used;

14.1.7. the humiliation of honor and dignity, tarnishing of business reputation is not allowed;

14.1.8. secret information about a person’s family and private life must not be disseminated;

14.1.9. there must be no libel, insults, or hate speech;

14.1.10. actions that are contrary to the protection of health and the environment must not be propagated;

14.1.11. facts and developments must be commented on impartially and objectively, one-sidedness is not allowed;

14.1.12. parapsychology (psychics, mediums, etc.), superstition, or other kinds of fanaticism must not be propagated;

14.1.13. pornographic materials must not be published (broadcast);

14.1.14. information about a person being guilty must not be published (broadcast) without a valid court decision;

14.1.15. the requirements provided for in the Law of the Republic of Azerbaijan “On protection of children from harmful information” must be complied with;

14.1.16. other information provided in Article 13-2.3 of the Law of the Republic of Azerbaijan “On information, informatization, and protection of information” must not be broadcast.

Law on information, informatization, and protection of information:

*false information threatening to harm human life and health, causing significant property damage, mass violation of public safety, disruption of life support facilities, financial, transport, communications, industrial, energy, and social infrastructure facilities, or leading to other socially dangerous consequences.

  • propaganda and financing of terrorism, as well as methods and means of terrorism, information about training for the purpose of terrorism, as well as open calls for terrorism;
  • information on the propaganda of violence and religious extremism, open calls directed to the evocation of national, racial, or religious enmity, violent change of the constitutional order, territorial disintegration, violent seizure or maintenance of power, and organization of mass riots;
  • state secrets;
  • instructions or methods for producing firearms, their component parts, ammunition, and explosive substances;
  • information on preparation and usage of narcotic drugs, psychotropic substances, and their precursors, about locations of their unlawful acquisition, as well as information on the location of and methods of cultivation of plants containing narcotic substances;
  • pornography, including information related to child pornography;
  • information on the organization of and incitement to gambling and other unlawful betting games;
  • information disseminated with the purpose to promote suicide as a method of solving problems justifies suicide, provides the basis for or incites suicide, describes the methods of committing suicide, and organizes the commission of suicide by several individuals or organized groups;
  • defamatory and insulting information, as well as information breaching the inviolability of private life;
  • information breaching intellectual property rights;
  • other information prohibited by the laws of the Republic of Azerbaijan.

The legal framework of the power of the prosecutor’s office to issue the official warnings  

According to Article 133 of the Constitution, the Prosecutor’s Office of Azerbaijan (hereinafter – the “Prosecutor’s Office”) shall exercise control over the execution and application of laws, institute criminal cases, and conduct investigations. According to Article 2 of the Law About the Prosecutor’s Office, the Prosecutor’s Office of Azerbaijan is a single centralized body that, is logged in judicial authority.

According to Article 21 of the Law About the Prosecutor’s Office, issuing an official warning is one of the prosecutor’s mandates vested in its powers in the manner and within the framework established by law About the Prosecutor’s Office. Article 22 of the Law identifies under which circumstances, the prosecutor or his deputy shall issue an official warning to the citizen or official.

Because these warnings, as procedural acts, are not established in the administrative code of offenses or in the criminal procedural codes of the Azerbaijan Republic, they serve as a deterrent for individuals from certain actions, such as stopping, not repeating, or not taking any other action in the future.

Powers of the Prosecutor’s Office in the cases of administrative offenses

Article 54 of the Code of Administrative Offenses determines the scope of the prosecutor’s supervision power in the cases of administrative offenses. Within its power, the prosecutor shall take timely measures to eliminate the violation of the law during the proceedings on administrative offenses and exercise the prosecutor’s control over the application and implementation of the Constitution and laws of Azerbaijan.

The first sentence of Article 54.2 of the Code outlines a list of administrative offenses where the prosecutor’s office is empowered to initiate the administrative offense cases. The second sentence of the same Article also gives unlimited power to the Prosecutor’s office to initiate administrative offense cases for any other cases envisaged in the Code of Administrative Penalties.

Once the decision to initiate proceedings on administrative offenses is made, the Prosecutor’s Office then shall send the case to a judge or an authorized body for judiciary proceedings on the merits of the case. Overall, the scope of the prosecutor’s supervision concerning administrative offenses includes the right of the prosecutor to decide on the initiation of proceedings on administrative offenses, to participate in consideration of cases on administrative offenses, to give an opinion or petition on issues arising during the proceedings, to protest against a decision or to rule on an administrative offense.

Thus, the prosecutor’s office has the authority to take measures of responsibility and deterrence against the dissemination of prohibited information on the Internet under the existing legislation on administrative offenses and the law of the prosecutor’s office.

Prosecutor General’s Office warnings to journalists and social media users – comments on recent cases

Detecting dissemination of prohibited information on the Internet and taking non-criminal measures against it is carried out (in the order of checking the information on the violation of the law) by the department for Non-Criminal Prosecution of the Prosecutor General’s Office of Azerbaijan.

In recent months, there have been numerous reports in the media about some social media users, journalists, and news websites receiving warnings or handing administrative offenses in case materials, submitted to the courts by the Prosecutor General’s Office.

Example 1:

On April 1, 2022, the Prosecutor General’s Office warned two online media platforms for spreading inaccurate information. According to the Press Service of the Prosecutor General’s Office, “gazet.az” and “manset.az” published inaccurate information on March 31, 2022, about an incident in which as a result of collapsed school building some 20 people died, and many more were injured in Nakhchivan, thus violating the requirements of the Laws of the Republic of Azerbaijan “On Information, Informatization and Protection of Information”, as well as “On Media”.

But neither of the laws prohibit the spread of inaccurate information, nor do these laws define what inaccurate information is. The vagueness of the terminology however does allow the law enforcement authority to define any kind of views, and comments as “inaccurate information” and take punitive or deterrent legal action against them.

Example 2:

According to the press service of the Prosecutor General’s Office dated January 24, 2022, the Prosecutor General’s Office of the Republic of Azerbaijan continued to take preventive measures against the placement of prohibited information by law on the Internet, for the purpose of ensuring information security.

The press service then referred to five social media users who received warnings and one person who was detained on the grounds of putting pressure on democratic institutions, disrupting the activities of government agencies, making calls that would result in the governance decline in the country, as well as posting insulting or defamatory information on Facebook thus violating Article 13-2.3.9 of the law on the information.

However, Article 13-2.3.9 of the Law on Information, Informatization, and Protection of Information cited by the Prosecutor General’s Office only prohibits the dissemination of “information that is insulting or slander, as well as infringing on the privacy of private life.” The law does not prohibit the information that could be characterized as putting “pressure on democratic institutions”, “disrupting government agencies”, or “calling to reduce the level of governance in the country” on the list of prohibited information.

Example 3:

On December 21, 2021, Prosecutor’s office issued a warning to the principal of a high school, who was interviewed about the suicides among students. The Prosecutor’s office said the information shared by the school principal qualified as prohibited content, and thus was unacceptable to spread.

The Prosecutor General’s Office did not reveal further details about the case and specifically what parts of the principal’s interview violated the rules about the information on suicide. Article 13-2.3.8 of the Law on Information only prohibits the information that “promotes suicide as a method of solving problems, justifies or incites suicide, explains the methods of committing suicide or information to organize the suicide of several people in a group.”

Example 4:

On December 28, 2021, Prosecutor’s office issued a warning to 5 social media users for violating Article 13-2 of the Information law by spreading the information without citing certain facts and sharing biased information aimed to stir sensation in the society. The prosecutor’s office further urged social media users and journalists “to refrain from disclosing inaccurate and distorted information,” warning “that the most serious measures would continue against the spread of biased and misleading information in society.”

Similar, non-criminal legal action (i.e., warning) by the Prosecutor’s Office was made on November 21, 2021, against some media and social network users. The Prosecutor General’s Office initiated a violation of an administrative offense under Article 388-1.1.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses and sent the case to the relevant court for consideration. In addition, three other people were warned by the prosecutor. The Prosecutor General’s Office further urged more serious measures in accordance with the relevant legislation, including criminal liability against media and social network users who disseminate false and inaccurate information in order to create artificial agitation.

However, Article 13-2 of the information law does not prohibit information of a “sensational” nature or for not basing information “on concrete facts” or sharing “various biased information.”

Legal commentary on warning acts issued by the Prosecutor General’s Office

As noted above, although formal warnings are defined as a type of prosecutorial act, they do not explicitly determine the concrete legal consequences for the persons receiving these warnings. As such, it is possible to determine from existing cases that these warnings issued by the prosecutor’s office are announced after alleged perpetrators are called in for questioning.

It is also possible to determine that inviting the alleged perpetrator to the prosecutor’s office is done for the purpose of signing the warning act, as a way to consent and/or admit to violating the law and not repeating it again. This was reflected in the case of journalist Avaz Zeynalli* who after being called in for questioning refused to sign the issued warning. In such cases (when the warned entity does not sign the warning) it does not remove or cancel the warning. Also worth noting is that there are no specific points mentioned in the existing legislation about measures leveled against entities who refuse to sign the warnings.  

Finally, while these official warnings are carried out as preventive measures against violating existing legislation the procedural action itself is prescribed neither in the criminal law nor in the Code of Administrative Offenses. And according to the Supreme Court of the Republic of Azerbaijan, “warnings” must be examined within the framework of administrative proceedings by the administrative courts. As such, the court clearly states, that warnings are issued within the framework of administrative proceedings, the prosecutor’s office functions as a law enforcement authority and has the authority to summon the individual to introduce the warnings. Such instances of summoning and conversations are apparently mandatory and carried out by the Prosecutors like “procedural coercive measures” indicated in the Criminal Procedure Code. Nevertheless, once again, it is important to note that the warning(s) is not a sanction within the meaning of criminal law and administrative offenses law and therefore prosecutor’s office shall not apply procedural coercive measures in the absence of any offense. 

*The decision of Supreme Court of the Republic of Azerbaijan, № 2-1(102)-134/2019, 14.05.2019, Avaz Zeynallı v.Chief Prosecutor’s office.

Conclusion

What the cases above illustrate is that there is a problematic and overbroad application of legal measures against social media users, journalists, and media in Azerbaijan. The examples further indicate the application of restrictive information law (which includes vaguely defined grounds to restrict free speech) against free speech on the internet and its likelihood of violating freedom of speech and media freedom standards.

Social media users, journalists, and media may argue that government regulations and their overbroad application by the Prosecutor General’s Office impermissibly infringe their freedom of speech guaranteed under the Constitution and international conventions to which Azerbaijan is a party.

Furthermore, there are almost no reports of domestic courts rejecting petitions by the prosecutor’s office against people’s rights to exercise their right to freedom of speech online, creating additional concerns about the absence of effective judicial and other remedies against the arbitrary use of domestic legislation against speech freedom rights.

As mentioned in the analysis above, one of the main challenges is that in its current form, the law on Information as well as the Code of Administrative Offenses provides vaguely defined grounds which are then used by the Prosecutor General’s Office with wide and arbitrary discretion, and at times, in the absence of any clear citing of the permissible grounds in the law. Such interference with freedom of speech is not compatible with the international standards which require that the restrictions on freedom of speech are clearly defined and concisely envisaged in the law and pursue legitimate aims as prescribed in national laws.

An analysis of most of the above cases shows that the Prosecutor General’s Office and the domestic courts interfere in freedom of expression without the proper legal grounds required for such interferences. The content of the impugned remarks characterized by the Prosecutor General’s Office and domestic courts as false, inaccurate, aimed to create a sensation, or to put pressure on the government and democratic institutions is not explicitly mentioned in the Law on Information, Informatization, and Information protection. This is against international standards which require that the national authorities intervening in the freedom of expression must have a basis in national laws (as a rule, this would mean a written and public law adopted by parliament), as well as must demonstrate sufficient reasons for justifying the interference and carefully balancing the applicants’ right to freedom of expression with the other permissible (legitimate) grounds

Azerbaijan is obligated to protect the right to freedom of expression, including the right to seek, receive, and impart information both online and offline, including on public health. International human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 19) and European Convention on Human Rights (Article 10) permit restrictions on freedom of speech only if they are provided for by law, are strictly necessary and proportionate to achieving a legitimate aim.

Considering the increased scope of the legal harassment, it would be fair to conclude that such a large-scale punitive and deterrent legal measures against freedom of expression by law enforcement authorities is aimed at silencing legitimate criticism, discouraging citizens from expressing their views, and further suffocating the freedom of expression on the Internet.

Freelance journalist appeal rejected

Jamil Mammadli is a regional freelance reporter often covering stories and developments from Northern Azerbaijan. In March 2021, Mammadli was sentenced to 1 year and 6 months of correctional labor. The charges were leveled against the journalist based on a complaint from the head of the regional district executive authority, Ziyaddin Aliyev. Aliyev claimed, that the stories Mammadli wrote about the official, were of defamatory and insulting nature. 

On May 17, during the appellate hearing, the journalist’s lawyers asked to acquit Mammadli, arguing the charges were illegal, while the special prosecutor, demanded that the journalist be handed a harsher sentence and was imprisoned.  The court rejected both of the appeals according to reporting by Meydan TV. 

Mammadli’s lawyer, Nemat Karimli said he disagreed with the ruling. “It is inadmissible to criminalize a journalist for his articles and content. The journalist was accused of slander and insult, even though he committed no such crimes,” said Karimli. 

Karimli also said that the case is centered around a video exposing the executive authority head hiring some 200 workers, without informing them and appropriating their salaries. According to the lawyer, the court failed to question the workers during the trial. 

While the charges against Mammadli remain, his lawyer, Karimli said they will be appealing to the Constitutional Court. 

Last year in March, when Mammadli was accused for the first time, the journalist said, he has indeed published video investigations about the official on his YouTube channel and Facebook and that the prosecutor’s office should instead investigate the evidence exposed in the videos.  

Mammadli previously was a regional reporter for Radio Liberty.

Blogger sentenced to 28 days in administrative detention [updated May 22, 2022]

[Update] On May 18, the appeal court denied the blogger’s appeal, refusing to review the blogger’s statement that he voluntarily showed up at the police station. The court also dismissed discrepancies in the case presented by the defense including the alleged claim that the blogger was released a day after his detention or that instead of an administrative sentence, the blogger should have been fined as this is the first time he is held criminally liable. 

On May 11, blogger Eyvaz Yakhyaoglu was sentenced to 28 days of administrative detention in Shirvan province of Azerbaijan. The blogger was accused of disobeying police according to reporting by Turan News Agency. 

The blogger, a member of the Azerbaijan Nationalist Democratic Party (ANDP) was called into questioning on May 9. According to the chairman of the political party, he was sentenced the following day. The party is certain that Yakhyaoglu’s prosecution is related to his online activism, specifically his YouTube channel “Shirvan TV – Eyvaz Eloglu.” 

The blogger often discussed violations of basic human rights in Shirvan, squandering of state property, and indifference of officials to the complaints of citizens. The blogger was warned several times before getting arrested, the party’s chairman, Galandar Mukhtarli told Turan News Agency.  

The local police allege Yakhyaoglu humiliated the local police officers outside the main building on May 9 and refused to stop after being called to order. The blogger denied the allegations, saying he arrived at the police station as per the invite and did not humiliate anybody.

Parliament members in Azerbaijan discuss blocking Sputnik [update June 13]

[Update] On June 10, the editor-in-chief of Sputnik Azerbaijan, Antonava-Tryzno Veranika, had her local residency permit revoked according to reporting by Meydan TV. Olegovna, a citizen of Belarus, lived in Azerbaijan together with her husband, Pavel Antonava. The decision was made by the State Migration Service on June 6. The couple was denied their application for the residency extension and were given ten days to leave Azerbaijan. In a separate development, Roskomnadzor sent a warning letter to Azerbaijan’s Russian language 1news.az website with a demand that the website removes one of the articles about the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.  

According to the editor-in-chief of 1news.az Kamala Mamedova, the letter claimed that the information resource (i.e., 1news.az) contained information distributed in violation of the law. The description of the information distributed in violation of the law was as follows: “Inaccurate socially significant information aimed at destabilizing the social and political situation in the Russian Federation.” Mamedova said, that information was taken from an official Ukrainian source and that’s what Roskomnadzor did not like. The editor said she responded to Roskomnadzor, thanking them for paying such close attention to their website and expressing her resentment “over why the media in Azerbaijan should follow incomprehensible laws of Russia, where wording undesirable to the Kremlin should be subject to sanctions.” 

Last month Russia’s chief media regulator – Roskomnadzor – blocked access to four Azerbaijan news websites. In retaliation, Baku is mulling over blocking Sputnik – Russia’s state-owned news platform active in Azerbaijan since 2015. By June 13, at least six Azerbaijan news sites were blocked by the Russian internet regulator– Roskomnadzor. 

In an address during a parliamentary session on April 26, Azerbaijan Parliament Member Vahid Ahmedov asked the State Agency for Media Support and the Press Council to block Sputnik on the territory of Azerbaijan in response to Russia blocking access to four Azerbaijan news websites last month. 

Responding to Ahmedov’s calls, the head of the Press Council, Aflatun Amashov said he welcomed the call, adding, “This agency disrupts objective and balanced report. That is why it is worth considering the future of this agency’s work in Azerbaijan,” reported Turan News Agency. 

In March, Roskomnadzor blocked access to minval.az, oxu.az, baku.ws, and haqqin.az in the absence of any explanation. Following the blocking, a group of Azerbaijani journalist organizations appealed to Roskomadzor to revoke its decision. “This decision [to block access] was taken without any information or warning to the editorial office of the portal […] We believe it is necessary to note that the government of Azerbaijan has never blocked Russian media outlets in those crucial times for its security, even during the second Karabakh war,” read the statement

Meanwhile, inside Azerbaijan, the local authorities continue blocking access to a number of independent news websites reporting on Azerbaijan. 

In a separate case, Russian authorities accused the PR director of Baku Magazine, sports journalist, Rovshan Askerov of “rehabilitating Nazism.” The Investigative Committee of Russia said, “the investigation established that no later than April 6, 2022, Askerov published on his Facebook page (banned on the territory of the Russian Federation) deliberately false information insulting and discrediting the memory of the great Russian commander and defender of the Fatherland, Marshal of the Soviet Union Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov.”

Baku magazine is the “brainchild” of Leyla Aliyeva, daughter of Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, and according to the magazine’s website, “is a digital ‘magazine about everything’; it supports conservation and wildlife charities, and it’s also a hub for news, events, and features, from Azerbaijan and around the world.” The magazine is published by Darius Sanai and Condé Nast in London on behalf of Leyla Aliyeva, reads the further description on the magazine’s website. 

In his defense, Askerov said the allegations were “fictitious.”

The Facebook post the Russian authorities were referring to in their statement was indeed published by Askerov on April 6 [which Askerov has removed since then] in which Askerov, criticized the point of having the statue of Zhukov in the first place. According to Turan News Agency, if found guilty, Askerov is facing up to 5 million rubles in fines, or imprisonment for up to five years.

Askerov, is a dual citizen [even though according to Azerbaijani legislation, the country does not recognize dual citizenship.]

On May 11, according to reporting by Meydan TV, the Russian Ministry of the Interior issued a search warrant for Askerov. According to reporting by Turan News Agency, the Moscow court arrested Askerov in absentia on May 24.