In Azerbaijan, a group of activists was targeted online following a non-violent march organized to mark International Women’s Day. The protest was violently dispersed by the police. Those detained were released after questioning. Last year, a similar attempt was quashed by the police. In October 2019, in an attempt to call on the authorities to take measures to combat drastic growth in the numbers of victims of domestic violence, the protesters were once again violently detained, sustaining physical injuries.
The digital attacks began already on March 8, when women’s rights activist and head of the Feminist Movement of Azerbaijan Gulnara Mehdiyeva and one of the main organizers of the march, realized, someone was trying to break into her Telegram account. Then her Gmail was hacked and much of her archive including photographs and documents were “downloaded” by the attacker. In less than 48 hours Mehdiyeva’s personal Facebook account was hacked. She was removed from several Facebook groups that focus on LGBTQI and women’s rights in Azerbaijan, where she was an “admin”. Then, these groups were compromised, suspended and one was deactivated. Both groups lost thousands of subscribers and content that were shared via the Facebook group page. Next in line was Mehdiyeva’s Protonmail.
Two of the Facebook groups targeted are Minority Magazine [Azerbaijan’s first digital magazine focusing on LGBT rights and issues] and Nefes LGBT Alliance Group.
The groups lost three years’ worth of content as a result of hacking.
Facebook page of Nafas LGBT Azerbaijan Alliance got attacked. Page is not accessible at all in search engine. It was possible to stop the deletion process of Minority, but seems like Nafas is going to be deleted once for all. Our work since 2012 is gone, written by @nabiyevcavid
— Ulviyya Ali (@UlviyyaAli) March 12, 2020
Several other LGBTQI activists reported attempts to hack into their social media profiles and emails in correspondence with AIW. One of the activists Javid Nabiyev, shared via his Facebook profile his frustration with the platform itself. In an attempt to get Facebook to verify his account he was given the following response “We reviewed your account, and unfortunately, it is not eligible to be verified”.
This is not the first time, activists are targeted online in Azerbaijan. Sometimes more sophisticated technology is used as well. Facebook remains a popular online platform where journalists, independent and opposition news platforms, activists, dissidents, analysts, and observers share their opinions, publish research, and also organize. As a result, it is closely observed by the authorities. Or as one veteran analyst, Altay Goyushov said in an interview once, “Social networks are the only place where the government checks the public mood”. Not surprisingly, in February 2019, a Social Research Center was set up that “monitors public opinion” and delivers the results to the ruling government. AIW is too closely monitoring – the situation.
As for the LGBTQI community in Azerbaijan, its history is stained with systemic harassment, abuse, torture, arrests, and even death. Some of the community members have fled the country in an attempt to start a new life elsewhere.