peace activists targeted online [updated]

Since the war over Nagorno Karabakh began on September 27, scores of peace activists in Azerbaijan have been targeted both online and offline for their views. From public Facebook posts and pages targeting the activists, with threats of violence and physical harm, calls for public shaming and punishment, to questioning at Security Services, this has no doubt been one of the harshest, collective, online public harassment campaigns observed until now in Azerbaijan.

On September 30, an anti-war statement signed by a group of Azerbaijani leftists was published online. Another anti-war statement was published shortly after by an online regional platform Caucasus Talks. In a matter of days, many Azerbaijani activists who signed the statements began receiving online threats, harassment, and deliberate targeting.

A Facebook page called Pinochet Airlines [which was successfully removed after reporting the page to Facebook] was sharing pictures of Azerbaijani signatories, using foul language, humiliating, and calling for public action against them. After the page was taken down, a user, who claimed to allegedly run the page, said in a Facebook post the page lived up to its purpose and although it was taken down, more was yet to come.

Caucasus Talks platform was smeared with allegations to have links to the Armenian Prime Minister’s wife. These allegations were refuted by the platform in a series of tweets:

On Twitter, some users called for the execution of #nowar activists.

In addition to online targeting, some of the activists were called into questioning at State Security Services over their views shared online on several occasions. Most recently, Latif Mammadov was called for questioning on November 16 where he was threatened for his online activities. “One of them asked me a question and when he didn’t like my answer he grabbed me by the collar and just started shaking me vigorously, I pushed him on his shoulder so he let me go, but then his colleague got up and they pushed me down on the chair […] They said they will kill me and my parents if I don’t stop [my online activity],” Mammadov told OC Media in an interview. 

Online and offline harassments and targeting are common in Azerbaijan, especially when targeting high profile political activists and figures. However, this time, deliberate, coordinated targeting against a handful of peace activists and no war advocates, is clearly linked to the nationalist fervor stemming from the on-going fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan, that ended on November 10 with a deal brokered by Russia. 

parliament in Azerbaijan is discussing law on hate speech

Parliament in Azerbaijan is set to discuss a draft law on hate speech. While independent critics say there is no need for a separate law, given the existing legal framework that does offer context on hate speech, there is suspicion it is another law with an intention to harm independent voices. 

On September 17, Zahid Oruc, member of the parliament and the head of the Human Rights Committee at the National Parliament, suggested parliament adopts a new law on hate speech. Oruc said the main goal of the law would be to prevent hate speech in information space. While promising, the draft law will be released for public discussion before it goes to the parliament during the fall session, the MP also added the draft law, may consider including social media platforms as part of the information space.

Azerbaijan Internet Watch talked to Elesger Memmedli, a media law expert in Azerbaijan about the draft law. Memmedli thinks there is no need for a separate law on hate speech because Azerbaijan already has plenty of laws that can be amended to regulate hate speech. “What is worrying is the intention. At the moment, the draft law is aimed at political speeches and other instances. But the likelihood of this law to be used as a limiting norm is high.”

The tradition of using existing legal framework or laws against opposition or independent voices goes back to the case of the then opposition journalist Eynulla Fatullayev, explained to Azerbaijan Internet Watch, lawyer Khaled Aghaly. At the time of the sentence [in 20o7] Fatullayev was accused of terrorism, defamation, and incitement to racial hatred. Like Memmedli, Agahly agrees there is no need for a new law when Azerbaijan has Article 283 of the Criminal Code – on Excitation of national, racial, social, or religious hate and hostility.

During the height of the pandemic in Azerbaijan, the parliament introduced a series of amendments to existing laws that were then used to prosecute activists explains Elesger Memmedli. “Shortly after [the amendments] scores of activists were rounded up, including members of [opposition] Popular Front. Some were taken straight from their homes and sentenced to lengthy administrative detention,” recalls Memmedli [some of these arrests were captured here]. 

In 2017, when changes were made to the law on religious terrorism, two prominent members of the Popular Front were arrested relying on the existing legislation, even though it was clear, it was a setup, as neither of the activists had any religious affiliation or background explains Memmedli. 

  • In July, a court convicted Faig Amirli, an APFP member and financial director of the now-closed pro-opposition Azadlig newspaper, on bogus charges of inciting religious hatred and tax-evasion. He received a suspended sentence.
  • In January 2017, a Baku court convicted senior APFP member Fuad Gahramanli to 10 years’ imprisonment for inciting religious and ethnic hatred; he posted criticisms of the government on Facebook.

 

So while hate speech may be a legitimate concern the existing examples tell a different story says Memmedli. 

Meanwhile, Zahid Oruc, vowed the drat law, would not limit the freedom of speech.