blogger handed seven year jail sentence

On April 15, blogger, Aslan Gurbanov was sentenced to seven years on charges of calls to overthrow the government and incitement of national, religious, and social hatred, according to Azadliq Radio, Azerbaijan Service for Radio Free Liberty. Gurbanov was arrested on July 14. During his arrest, the blogger suffered from a seizure according to the Justice for Journalists records.

Gurbanov was arrested by the State Security Services and sentenced to four months detention. He was kept at the SSS’s pre-trial detention facility until the trial. 

According to the Azadliq Radio report the blogger was accused of anti-government propaganda on social media platforms and instigated national discrimination – the accusations, Gurbanov refutes. Contrary to the alleged claims that the blogger was disseminating false stories about the discrimination against the Talysh people – an ethnic minority group in Azerbaijan. 

In a statement issued by the Talysh Public Council of Azerbaijan, the group said, Gurbanov promoted Talysh culture and literature, and that accusing the blogger of plotting against the state was unsubstantiated. 

Gurbanov is not the first Talysh activist to be targeted in Azerbaijan. In 2007, the then editor of Talysho Syado (‘Talysh Voice’) newspaper Novruzali Mamedov was arrested initially on charges of ‘resisting law enforcement.’ He was later charged with treason. In his first 15 days in custody, Mamedov was held incommunicado at a [now former] Ministry of National Security detention center, and neither family members nor lawyers were able to visit him. In June 2008, Mamedov was convicted of treason for the ‘distribution of Talysh nationalist ideas and attempts to destroy the foundations of the Azerbaijani state’ and sentenced to 10 years in prison in a closed trial, in absence of his defense attorney, relatives, and the press. The prosecutors alleged that Mamedov received money from Iran to publish the newspaper, but failed to explain or comment on the charges publicly.

Mamedov died in prison in August 2009 as a result of a variety of health problems for which he never received adequate medical care reported Radio Liberty. 

In September 2013, another Talysh journalist, Hilal Mamedov was sentenced to five years in jail on charges of selling drugs, high treason including espionage for Iran, and incitement to national, racial, social, and religious hatred and hostility. Hilal Mamedov took over the editorial of the Talysho Syado after Novruzali Mamedov’s arrest. The journalist was pardoned in 2016 following the Presidential pardon decree. 

exiled blogger continues to receive threats [updated March 31]

[Update] On March 30, exiled blogger Mahammad Mirzali shared screenshots of new threats he has been receiving from unknown numbers. In one message the sender says he has a new incriminating video of Mirzali’s sister. In another, the sender claims there is new material about members of the opposition Popular Front Party that he will be sharing shortly. Yet in another message, the sender claims to have intimate videos of Kemale Beneniyarli, the chairman of the women’s council of the Popular Front Party. In the same message, the sender offers an alternative link to a Telegram channel in case the first channel is removed.


 On March 14, AIW reported that Azerbaijani blogger, Mahammad Mirzali was stabbed in the city of Nantes, France. Mirzali, runs a YouTube channel, Made in Azerbaijan. On March 14, Mirzali was attacked by a group of men and was hospitalized after receiving multiple stab wounds. According to Reporters Without Borders, Mirzali underwent surgery that lasted more than six hours.   

On March 21, while recovering at the hospital, Mirzali received yet another message on WhatsApp from a man named Andres Gragmel, “This is the last warning. We can kill you without any problem. You’ve seen that we’re not afraid of anyone (…) If you continue to insult our sisters, we’ll have you killed with a bullet to the head fired by a sniper.” 

Reporters Without Borders is asking to place Mirzali under police protection following the most recent and previous attacks [Mirzali was shot at in October 2020 as he was getting into his car.]

Threat messages and endless calls via WhatsApp from unknown numbers [often US numbers] are not new. Scores of activists in Azerbaijan have complained about this before. And Azerbaijani activists are not the only ones targeted this way. 

In May 2019, WhatsApp discovered that attackers were able to install surveillance software on both iPhones and Android phones by ringing up targets using the app’s phone call function reported FT. The surveillance software is developed by Israeli NSO Group. It transmits a malicious code even if owners of mobile devices do not answer the calls. It can also remotely and covertly extract valuable intelligence from mobile devices, by sharing all phone activity including communications and location data with the attacker once the device is infected. “In the past, human rights campaigners in the Middle East have received text messages over WhatsApp that contained links that would download Pegasus to their phones,” reported FT in May 2019. 

In October 2019, BBC reported about Faustin Rukundo, a Rwandan exile who lives in the UK, receiving a call from an unknown number on WhatsApp. When Rukondo answered, the line was silent, after that the phone went dead, reported the BBC. In Rukundo’s case, the dialed number had a country code for Sweden. He kept receiving calls from the exact same number as well as other numbers on WhatsApp. Eventually, he figured something was wrong. Then researchers at Citizen Lab confirmed that Rukundo was indeed targeted with Pegasus. 

The same month, WhatsApp “confirmed that the exploit (a software or command that leverages a specific software vulnerability in order to execute some unwanted code on the vulnerable device) was deployed by the Israeli-based surveillance tool vendor NSO Group. The exploit could deliver intrusive spyware on the target’s mobile device without the targeted person having to click on a malicious link. The targeted person would simply see a missed call on WhatsApp,” reported Amnesty International.

According to Amnesty the way the spyware worked was: 

  • The security vulnerability in question was in the code that Whatsapp uses to establish a new voice or video call. In order to exploit this, the digital attack initiated WhatsApp calls to the target’s device.
  • Attackers may have tried to exploit this issue by making calls multiple times during the night when the target was likely to be asleep and not notice these calls.
  • Successful infection of the target’s device may result in the app crashing. There is a possibility that the attacker may also remotely erase evidence of these calls from the device’s call logs.
  • Evidence of failed attacks may appear as missed calls from unknown numbers in your WhatsApp call log.

In January 2020, Nagpur-based human rights lawyer Nihalsing Rathod who has been receiving strange calls via WhatsApp over the last two years from international numbers was informed that his phone was infected. Rathod, just like Rukundo, answered these calls, only to receive silence on the other end of the line. 

According to Access Now, since 2016, some 46 countries were identified where NSO Group’s Pegasus has been in use. “Reports from Access NowCitizen Lab, and others all show that an alarming number of people targeted using Pegasus have been journalists, lawyers, and activists, whose only crime was speaking out against and reporting on the injustices in their home countries.”

Whether the same technology is being used to target Azerbaijan acvtivists is yet to be investigated. Although Azerbaijan has acquired sophisticated surveillance technology over the years, Pegasus was not one of them, not from the available information. But the resemblance of the nature of these calls and the target group, raise concerns. 

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.