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. 

government in Azerbaijan threatens activists with interpol, again [update September 14]

On September 8, seven Azerbaijani dissidents who now live in various cities across Europe were targeted by the government of Azerbaijan. In addition to being formally charged with a crime in their absence and arrest warrants issued, the authorities have vowed to ask Interpol for their extradition.

The story goes back to last year when an Azerbaijani blogger, Elvin Isayev was extradited to Azerbaijan from Ukraine. Isayev lived in Russia since 1998 and was known for his critical views of the government. He acquired Russian citizenship in 2001. 19 years later, a court in St. Petersburg ruled to strip him of Russian citizenship and expel him. The following month Isayev moved to Ukraine, after an interim measure of the European Court of Human Rights called “Rule 39” suspended his deportation. Three months later he went missing only to appear in Azerbaijan where the Azerbaijan State Migration Service claimed Isayev was deported, a statement that was later refuted by Ukraine’s State Migration Service which said it never ordered Isayev’s deportation.

Few days after his “arrival” in Azerbaijan, Isayev was charged with calling for mass riots and public incitement against the ruling government. Now, the Prosecutor General office is seeking the deportation of seven men accusing them of the same crimes.

Ordukhan Babirov, Gurban Mammadov, Orkhan Agayev, Rafel Piriyev, Ali Hasanaliyev, Tural Sadigli, and Suleyman Suleymanli have been now charged in their absence. Many of these men are known for their online media activism, managing popular opposition YouTube channels, and for organizing street protests across European capitals in support of political prisoners in Azerbaijan, highlighting human rights violations and other advocacy engagements. One of the targeted men, popular activist, Ordukhan Babirov (known as Ordukhan Temirkhan Babirov) wrote in a Facebook post “[…] how many more times are they are going to give my name to Interpol”.

In an interview with OC-Media Tural Sadigli, activist and editor of Azad Soz [Free Speech] online news platform, said he faced a criminal case in 2019. “I was slighly surprised. They can’t reach us, they cannot stop our activities, so they use such forms of pressure,” Sadigli told OC Media.  

This is not the first time, the government in Azerbaijan is resorting to Interpol. But according to Interpol, “[it] cannot compel the law enforcement authorities in any country to arrest someone who is the subject of a Red Notice. Each member country decides what legal value it gives to a Red Notice and the authority of their law enforcement officers to make arrests.

The persecution against activists at home and abroad is on-going. For years, the ruling Baku tried silencing dissident voices both inside the country through threats, intimidation, and arrests and abroad through public shaming campaigns, and targeting of remaining family members. 

A week ago, a court in Baku sentenced veteran dissident Tofig Yagublu to four years and three months in jail on bogus charges. A campaign calling for his freedom #FreeTofigYagublu and #TofiqYaqubluyaAzadliq was launched and many of the targeted activists mentioned in this story have been rallying behind the campaign. Similarly, a youth activist who is among the organizers of the September 9 rally in support of Yagublu, was also targeted online and blackmailed. 

Opposition activist, Instagram account hacked [updated]

May 9, Azerbaijani politician, Gultekin Hajibeyli’s Instagram account hacked and taken down. Instead, a fake profile impersonating Hajibeyli was set up, with her private mobile phone number shared publicly in the profile description. Hajibeyli, was targeted online previously.

Such attacks are common in Azerbaijan, where opposition politicians and independent activists are targeted online. Account “break-ins”, impersonations, blackmailing posts, content takedown requests on YouTube for alleged copyright violations are among some of the popular harassment tactics in practice.

Unlawfully obtained personal information of intimate nature, including photos, videos, and email exchanges are commonly used to target women activists. A most recent example is an online harassment campaign launched against political activist and former political prisoner Ilkin Rustamzade’s wife, Amina Rustamzade. Leaked personal pictures were shared on Facebook and Instagram by various accounts.

On May 12, the account impersonating Hajibeyli was successfully removed from Instagram.

On May 13, a new fake Instagram profile was created.

political activist’s partner harassed online [Last update June 17]

June 17, Amina Rustamzade, wife of activist Ilkin Rustmazade attempted suicide after numerous posts violating her right to privacy [see below]. Rustamzade overdosed herself with sleeping pills. She was taken immediately to a clinical center where doctors were able to stabilize her condition. While her condition is stable, the perpetrator behind the harassment against Amina remains at large. Ilkin Rustamzade wrote on his Facebook, that his wife, received yet another message from the same user with the message “If Ilkin is not silent, then what happened earlier will happen again.”

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Ilkin Rustamzade is a former political prisoner and activist who spent six years in jail on bogus charges. He was arrested in May 2013 on alleged hooliganism charges. Additional charges – inciting violence and organizing mass disorder in connection with a peaceful protest in 2013 – were added during his pre-trial detention period. Rustamzade was sentenced to eight years in jail in 2014. He was recognized “prisoner of conscience” by International rights watchdog Amnesty International.

Authorities released Rustamzade in March 2019 following a presidential pardon decree. But threats and harassment against him continue.

On April 7, Rustamzade was contacted by this profile on Facebook. The person behind the profile introduced himself as an officer working for the Special Security Services in Azerbaijan. In the brief exchange this person had with Rustamzade, he kept removing all of the messages after they were sent. As a result, there are few screenshots that actually contain any evidence of this person threatening Rustamzade.

In one message, the user tells Rustamzade to stop the campaign the activist started on change.org. The campaign calls on the Azerbaijan authorities to allocate funds for families who have been affected by the global pandemic that has also reached Azerbaijan. When Rustamzade refused to remove the campaign, that is when the person threatened Rustamzade to humiliate him and his family.

Shortly after, a Facebook page (that has now been successfully removed) was set up, with intimate pictures of Rustamzade’s wife Amina Rustamzade and posts using humiliating language.

On April 8, a new Facebook page was set up with similar content. There is also, an Instagram post, that was shared by this account on the social media platform. In addition, his fiance’s profile appears to have been added to an escort website with personal information including phone numbers.

Also on April 8, Rustamzade’s father, Bakir Khalilov was taken by the police when they could not locate Ilkin Rustamzade at his family home. When Rustamzade called to speak with his father, the police interrupted the conversation, took the phone away from the father and told Rustamzade unless he comes to the station, his father will be arrested. When police showed up at his father’s house, they claimed Rustamzade violated quarantine laws by leaving the house without informing the law enforcement. This is a new regulation that was introduced on April 5. Rustamzade moved out on April 2. Three days before the regulation was set in place.

Meanwhile, Rustamzade’s father falls into a threatened group category due to his age and health condition. He just recently had heart surgery.

Although his father has been released since then, Rustamzade is concerned both his father, and himself could be arrested and that threats against his family will continue.

Journalist Khadija Ismayilova wrote her on Facebook that “Police clearly is eager to use these SMS restrictions to harass activists.”