Amnesty International statement calls to stop gender-based reprisals in Azerbaijan

On May 12, Amnesty International released a statement calling to stop gender-based reprisals in Azerbaijan. 

“Women human rights defenders have faced threats, coercion, violations of their right to privacy and smear campaigns that are gender-specific and target them as women. This type of gender-based violence and discrimination aims to silence their critical voices and discredit their work. It also seeks to punish them for speaking out as women,” reads the statement. 

The statement documents the recent attacks and harassment women activists have faced for their work, outspokenness, or for simply being family members of government critics. 

AIW reported on these attacks previously:

February 26, 2021 – Activist’s personal messages leaked after hacking [update March 9];

March 9, 2021 – Targeted harassment via telegram channels and hacked Facebook accounts [updated March 15];

March 16, 2021 – Coordinated digital attacks against Feminist movement members and LGBT rights activists

March 25, 2021 – Exiled blogger continues to receive threats [updated March 31];

March 28, 2021 – Facebook page, advertising telegram channel, targeting a woman activist [update March 30];

April 14, 2021 – Activists trolled for exposing child abuse in Azerbaijan

The report concludes that:

Azerbaijan has an obligation under international human rights law to take all appropriate measures to prevent gender-based violence and other human rights violations against women, including violations of their right to privacy. The Azerbaijani authorities must conduct a prompt, impartial and effective investigation into each and every reported incident of such violence, as well as of instances of reported discrimination or harassment of women, in order to identify and bring to justice in fair proceedings anyone reasonably suspected of being culpable or complicit in such acts, whether they are private individuals or members of security services or other state officials. Women who have suffered these violations should be provided with effective remedies and reparations including restitution, compensation, rehabilitation and guarantees of non-repetition. Azerbaijan must ensure that every person’s rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are respected and that women are able to fully enjoy these rights, including in the form of women’s marches.

activists trolled for exposing child abuse in Azerbaijan

Vafa Nagi, an activist who recently exposed systemic abuse of young girls in one region of Azerbaijan has herself become a target of harassment as a result. 

Writing about the harassment on her Facebook account, Nagi explained that ever since she shared the story of a 14-year-old  girl, a resident of a small village subject to sexual abuse and the involvement of one police officer in this abuse, Nagi and her family members have faced targeting from the officer and his family members.  

On Facebook Nagi has been targeted with slurs by users related to the police officer.

In the meantime, according to this BBC Azerbaijan service story, the victim was relocated to a shelter in the capital Baku, where she is receiving psychological help. 

In their statement issued earlier, the Ministry of the Interior said they are investigating the case but so far, have not taken any measures against the police officer involved. 

***

Vafa Nagi is an elected member of the local municipality of the region where this abuse has taken place. Recently Nagi was targeted in March of this year after taking part in a women’s march organized to mark International Women’s Day in Baku. 

in Azerbaijan a telegram channel mobilising a movement, to target LGBTQI

According to Minority Magazine reporting, a new movement calling itself “Pure Blood” is mobilizing via the Telegram channel to target members of the LTBTQI community in Azerbaijan.

The magazine, sharing screenshots from the channel called on the relevant government institutions in Azerbaijan to investigate. 

“Hurray, they should be burned,” wrote one user in the chat. Another user wrote the fight against people with “untraditional sexual orientation” must be carried out on the government level, just like in Poland and Hungary. 

The last time someone shared a text in the group was March 19, at least according telemetr.io. 

While it is the first time, news of such a “movement” are making headlines in Azerbaijan, it is certainly not the first time, the community is targeted. 

Since 2000s, Azerbaijani government has been deploying spyware purchased from Israeli Verint. Verint supplied Azerbaijan with a system that allowed the government to collect information from social media. One of Verint’s former employees who traveled to Azerbaijan to train the client was asked how to use the system, “to check sexual inclinations via Facebook.” This technology was likely to be used in 2017, when the government of Azerbaijan went on a witch hunt on gay and transgender people.  

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.

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 

facebook page affiliated with opposition hacked, again

On September 10, the Facebook page that belongs to an online news website bastainfo.com was hacked. Bastainfo.com is affiliated with the opposition party Musavat and is known for often running into problems with the authorities. Its editor was handed a five year suspended sentence in February 2019. The website bastainfo.com remains blocked for access in Azerbaijan. 

In January 2020, Azerbaijan Internet Watch reported how several Musavat party social media accounts were targeted. According to preliminary reports five Facebook pages, one Facebook group, and one website were targeted. 

Bastainfo.com page was targeted then as well. The page lost followers. During last week’s attack, bastainfo.com page lost some 5k followers, and content that was shared since 2017. 

Hacking and compromising Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube accounts (because these are popular platforms used by journalists and activists) is common in Azerbaijan and isn’t new. The online harassment of prominent accounts began several years ago at first, mostly on the level of government-sponsored trolls. Over the years, as the ruling government developed an interest in spyware technology, the types of attacks became more sophisticated while state-sponsored trolling and reliance on automated bots even though still used, became secondary. In each of these cases, finding the perpetrators have not been possible. And in cases when it was clear the attacker was an automated bot/state-sponsored troll the platform took no action. We finally know why. A former Facebook employee, Sophie Zhang, wrote a memo after getting fired from her job at the company revealing how the company dealt with fake accounts and bots. Among the countries, she has worked on and analyzed was Azerbaijan. “Ms. Zhang discovered that the ruling political party in Azerbaijan was also using false accounts to harass opposition figures. She flagged the activity over a year ago, she said, but Facebook’s investigation remains open and officials have not yet taken action over the accounts.”