political activist and blogger detained

On June 23, Elchin Ibrahimli, a member of an opposition party was detained according to local news reports. He was sentenced to 30 days in administrative detention the following day, said members of the party. According  to reports, the activist allegedly resisted police and as a result was sentenced on charges of resisting the police according to the Code of Administrative Offenses, Article 535. 

In a statement issued by the Ministry of the Interior, the blogger is said to have failed to show up in person at the police station despite numerous invitations. 

According to Azadliq Radio, Azerbaijan Service for Radio Liberty, Ibrahimli was arrested from his home. Speaking to the radio, Faig Jafarzade, the party regional head, said Ibrahimli is an active social media user and that his arrest is rooted in his political activism.  

activist exposing fake accounts on social media arrested, facing up to 12 years behind bars [with updates]

Razi Alishov was detained on May 28 in the city of Ganja. Two days later, the political activist and member of the opposition Popular Front party, was charged with Article 234.2 of the Criminal Code [Illegal purchase or storage with a view of selling, manufacturing, processing, transportation, transfer or selling of narcotics or psychotropic substances] and sentenced to two months in pretrial detention. 

The opposition Popular Front party considers the detention and the grounds for Alishov’s arrest, political. According to the party, Alishov often exposed fake social media accounts deployed by the state, targeting the party, reported Turan News Agency on May 30. The activist also often identified stolen or hijacked social media accounts of opposition activists.  

While the Ministry of the Interior has confirmed the arrest of the political activist, it has denied that the motives behind the arrest are political. Noting the party member’s arrest, the leader of the Popular Front, Ali Karimli said the arrest was part of the rotating door policy referring to a number of recently released political prisoners and the need to “fill out the emptied spots in prisons.” 

On May 27, President Ilham Aliyev signed a presidential pardon decree. Among 168 prisoners released were also several political prisoners, reported Meydan TV.

On June 2, the appeal court in the city of Ganja reviewed Alishov’s complaint appeal where the activist was informed that the original charge of drug possession was aggravated to Articles 234.4.1 and 234.4.3 of the Criminal Code [Manufacturing, purchase, storage, transfer, transportation or selling the drug by a group of persons or organized group with a view of illegal manufacturing and processing of narcotics or psychotropic substances].

Relevant articles of the penal code

Article 234. Illegal manufacturing, purchase, storage, transportation, transfer, or selling of narcotics, psychotropic substances;

234.1. Illegal purchase or storage without a purpose of selling of narcotics or psychotropic substances in a quantity (amount) exceeding necessary for personal consumption – is punished by imprisonment for a term up to three years.

234.2. Illegal purchase or storage with a view of selling, manufacturing, processing, transportation, transfer, or selling of narcotics or psychotropic substances – is punished by imprisonment for a term from three up to seven years with confiscation of property or without it.

234.3. Manufacturing, purchase, storage, transfer, transportation, or selling drugs with a view to illegal manufacturing and processing of narcotics or psychotropic substances – is punished by imprisonment for a term up to three years with confiscation of property or without it.

234.4. The acts provided by articles 234.2 and 234.3 of the present Code, committed:

234.4.1. on preliminary arrangement by group of persons or organized group;

234.4.2. repeatedly;

234.4.3. in large amount – is punished by imprisonment for the term from five up to twelve years with confiscation of property.

 

blogger charged with drug possession sentenced to four months [Updated June 28]

[Update June 28] On June 25, the District Court rejected Ramazanov’s request to be moved under house arrest. The blogger’s lawyer Elchin Sadigov said they will appeal the decision.

[Update June 13] According to reporting by Turan News Agency, Ramazanov was taken to the Republican Psychiatric Hospital for tests. Ramazanov’s lawyer said this was not uncommon given the charges leveled against Ramazanov. 

On May 21, a court in Baku charged blogger Rashad Ramazanov (pen-name Rashad Hagigat Agaaddin) with illegal drug possession in large quantity, with an intention to sell under criminal code article 234.4.3, sentencing the blogger to four months in pretrial detention. Ramazanov was detained on May 20 according to reports by local media.

This is not the first time, Ramazanov has been detained. In 2013, the blogger was sentenced to nine years in jail on similar charges. At the time, rights groups, described the charges as trumped up. Officials claimed to have found heroin on the blogger. Ramazanov was released from jail in 2019 as part of a pardon issued by President Ilham Aliyev.

Ramazanov, often criticized the state on social media. According to human rights defender Rufat Safarov, the charges leveled against the blogger this time, are also related to his active criticism of the state.

If found guilty the blogger is facing anywhere between 5 to 12 years behind bars.

[Update] According to Turan News Agency, blogger Ramazanov said he was tortured in police custody. The ministry of the interior denied the claims. On May 27, the Baku appeal court reviewed the blogger’s case but ruled to keep Ramazanov behind bars reported Turan News Agency.

Blogger sentenced to 28 days in administrative detention [updated May 22, 2022]

[Update] On May 18, the appeal court denied the blogger’s appeal, refusing to review the blogger’s statement that he voluntarily showed up at the police station. The court also dismissed discrepancies in the case presented by the defense including the alleged claim that the blogger was released a day after his detention or that instead of an administrative sentence, the blogger should have been fined as this is the first time he is held criminally liable. 

On May 11, blogger Eyvaz Yakhyaoglu was sentenced to 28 days of administrative detention in Shirvan province of Azerbaijan. The blogger was accused of disobeying police according to reporting by Turan News Agency. 

The blogger, a member of the Azerbaijan Nationalist Democratic Party (ANDP) was called into questioning on May 9. According to the chairman of the political party, he was sentenced the following day. The party is certain that Yakhyaoglu’s prosecution is related to his online activism, specifically his YouTube channel “Shirvan TV – Eyvaz Eloglu.” 

The blogger often discussed violations of basic human rights in Shirvan, squandering of state property, and indifference of officials to the complaints of citizens. The blogger was warned several times before getting arrested, the party’s chairman, Galandar Mukhtarli told Turan News Agency.  

The local police allege Yakhyaoglu humiliated the local police officers outside the main building on May 9 and refused to stop after being called to order. The blogger denied the allegations, saying he arrived at the police station as per the invite and did not humiliate anybody.

political activist kidnapped, facebook post deleted under duress [update April 29]

Bakthiyar Hajiyev is a political activist from Azerbaijan. In February 2020, AIW published this story about threats and intimidation Hajiyev was facing. Despite numerous requests made to the relevant government institutions to investigate, Hajiyev’s complaints remained unanswered. Instead, attacks continued. In September 2021, Hajiyev was reportedly threatened by Baku Police Chief Alekper Ismayilov over a Facebook post, in which the activist criticized the Ministry, specifically the Minister of the Interior, Vilayat Eyvazov for delaying a response to his complaints. 

On April 21, 2022, two years after, Hajiyev’s initial reports of cyberharassment, physical threats, and intimidation, the activist was kidnapped, taken to an undisclosed location, and was forced to remove several Facebook posts under duress that criticized the Ministry of the Interior, including the minister himself, for failing to investigate his case and being the perpetrators of threats and attacks against him. 

In a lengthy Facebook post, the activist described in detail what happened to him that day: 

I was attacked by an unknown man on April 21, around 11 pm on my way home. That moment, 4 men, their faces hidden under masks, forced me into their car. They placed a black sack over my head, taping over my eyes and mouth over the sack, tied my hands, and inserted earplugs over the sack so I don’t hear anything. After driving for a while, the men switched cars [Hajiyev suspected that the men changed too]. When they finally removed the sack, I was in what looked like a bathroom of a flat. They proceeded to humiliate me by using foul language. They demanded that I tell them who ordered me to write Facebook posts that were critical of the Minister of the Interior. When I told them I received orders from no one, they stripped me naked and proceeded to urinate on me. They demanded I delete the Facebook posts about Vilayet Eyvazov [the Minister of the Interior] and Fuad Muradov [Chairman of the State Committee on Work with Diaspora]. I deleted them all […] They filmed the whole time. In the meantime, they continued to threaten me. They told me if I continued to criticize the minister, they would rape me, and murder me. After that, they tied my eyes again and got rid of me in an undisclosed location where I was handed over to another group of four men who drove for a while and dropped me off somewhere hands still tied, and eyes covered. By the time I was able to untie myself, they were nowhere to be seen. There was nothing in the location where they disposed of me […] What happened to me, is a state-level crime, mafia-like measures. I immediately informed several government institutions and officials. I was assured that the head of state is aware of the matter. I was also told that the Minister of the Interior himself was going to meet me. A few days later, I was taken to the Ministry of the Interior where I met with the Minister’s Deputy, Ismet Aliyev. But 10-15 minutes into our conversation, it became clear that there was no need to continue the meeting because they did not tell me anything new. “We did not beat you, we used physical force,” “American police is worse. We are treating you humanely like a citizen,” “police beats people who want to hurt themselves everywhere across the world,” etc.

Hajiyev reiterated in his post that everything that has happened to him in the last two years, including most recently, the beating at the Baku City Police Department is all, the doing of the Ministry of the Interior. And until they prove him wrong, and the perpetrators are punished, the responsibility will be on Minister Eyvazov. “For anything that happens to me from now on, it is on the minister and the person who appointed him,” wrote Hajiyev. 

On April 24, Hajiyev attempted to review the CCTV footage from the street where he was kidnapped. In all the footage he reviewed, it appears parts of the recording – specifically the moment of his kidnapping – have been removed without the knowledge of the owners of security cameras. Describing this, Hajiyev wrote that the missing footage indicates “the crime was not committed by any criminal group, but by an organized, professional government agency.”

Earlier this month, Meta released its pilot quarterly Adversarial Threat Report. Among the countries mentioned in the report, is Azerbaijan where the platform said it has identified “a hybrid network operated by the Ministry of the Internal Affairs.” According to the document, this network relied on, what Meta refers to as, “Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior [CIB]” in combination with cyber espionage, “compromising accounts and websites to post” on behalf of the Ministry. The ministry’s press office was quick to dismiss the findings, saying the findings were fictitious.

*On April 28, Hajiyev was informed that the rotating security camera operated by the Ministry of the Interior as part of its “Safe City” system, was not rotating. 

Meta’s quarterly adversarial report confirms suspicions of government sponsored targeting

This month, Meta released its pilot quarterly Adversarial Threat Report. Among the countries mentioned in the report, is Azerbaijan where the platform said it has identified “a hybrid network operated by the Ministry of the Internal Affairs.” According to the document, this network relied on, what Meta refers to as, “Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior [CIB]” in combination with cyber espionage, “compromising accounts and websites to post” on behalf of the Ministry. The ministry’s press office was quick to dismiss the findings, saying the findings were fictitious. 

To pundits familiar with Azerbaijan as well as this platform, it was not all surprising to see the country’s name on the list. This is also not the first time, Azerbaijan’s name appears in Facebook reports on CIB either.

Ample evidence collected over the recent years indicated how a thriving community of government-sponsored [in]authentic accounts targeted independent and opposition media pages and accounts; political activists and rights defenders’ profiles; and have done so over extended periods of time, causing reputational damage to the owners of targeted accounts, spreading false information, distorting facts, and engaging openly in harassment. These and other forms of content/user manipulation on social networks have also become more explicit, and brazen.

So, while it is great that Meta has taken notice and taken measures, it is too little, too late. And here is why. 

Pre-surveillance era 

Azerbaijan users embraced Facebook when it finally expanded beyond its limited geographical scope in 2006. By 2011 the number of Facebook users in Azerbaijan was 7percent. Fast forward eleven years, and according to Azerbaijan Press Agency, this number is around 58.4percent. Since the early years of Facebook, the platform quickly became a popular tool in the hands of activists and more broadly speaking civil society. Used to organize public events and workshops, and share information, Facebook also turned into a platform for political organizing. This continues to be the case to this day. But the platform’s popularity also attracted the attention of the ruling government. Nervous, of spillover from the Arab uprisings, monitoring of the platform became a norm. Scores of activists would get whisked from the streets, for questioning over the following years for public posts calling for protests or criticizing the authorities and government institutions, and politicians. 

It was only a matter of time, before a counter-narrative, sponsored and organized by the state institutions would appear on the platform. First in the form of youth movements sympathetic to the regime, and their members who meticulously searched for any criticism of the ruling government only to argue the opposite. And then gradually transitioning into a more systematic trolling, targeting, and harassment. Facebook profiles, were replaced with Facebook pages which were created to look like profiles but in reality, were facades for hundreds of inauthentic accounts. Gradually distorting facts and targeting users by “brigading” was combined with aggressive “cyber espionage.” The latter is perhaps the most common emergency, AzNet Watch has documented in recent years. 

But back at the headquarters of Facebook, nobody knew how much of a role the platform played in Azerbaijan and in many other countries across the world where the platform was utilized as a tool for information sharing, organizing, as well a political stage of some sort that opposition activists used and continue to use for their political messaging. I once, attempted to explain that to Zuckerberg but he did not want to listen, after all, he was on his honeymoon, touring Europe and the last thing he wanted to hear was the political, and social significance of his company in countries like Azerbaijan. 

Terminology worth knowing

Before diving any deeper let me explain some of the key terms for the sake of clarity. 

Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior

Coordinated efforts to manipulate public debate for a strategic goal where fake accounts are central to the operation. There are two tiers of these activities that we work to stop: 1) coordinated inauthentic behavior in the context of domestic, non-government campaigns and 2) coordinated inauthentic behavior on behalf of a foreign or government actor.

Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior (CIB) – domestic

When we find domestic, non-government campaigns that include groups of accounts and Pages seeking to mislead people about who they are and what they are doing while relying on fake accounts, we remove both inauthentic and authentic accounts, Pages, and Groups directly involved in this activity.

Foreign or Government Interference (FGI)

If we find any instances of CIB conducted on behalf of a government entity or by a foreign actor, we apply the broadest enforcement measures including the removal of every on-platform property connected to the operation itself and the people and organizations behind it.

Brigading: adversarial networks where people work together to mass comment, mass post, or engage in other types of repetitive mass behaviors to harass others or silence them.

Mass Reporting: adversarial networks where people work together to mass-report an account or content to get it incorrectly taken down from our platform.

Cyber espionage: when actors typically target people across the internet to collect intelligence, manipulate them into revealing information, and compromise their devices and accounts.

Now that the terminology is out of the way, what has been Azerbaijan’s performance in Facebook/Meta’s previous reports? Not good to say the least. 

Previously, Azerbaijan was mentioned in two CIB reports both published in October 2020. “We removed 589 Facebook accounts, 7,665 Pages, and 437 accounts on Instagram linked to the Youth Union of New Azerbaijani Party. This network originated in Azerbaijan and focused primarily on domestic audiences. We identified this network through an internal investigation into suspected fake engagement activity in the region,” read the report [New Azerbaijan Party is the ruling party of Azerbaijan that’s been in power since the early years of the country’s independence.]

“While the individuals behind this activity used fake accounts — some of which had been already detected and disabled by our automated systems, they primarily relied on authentic accounts to create Pages designed to look like user profiles — using false names and stock images — to comment and artificially boost the popularity of particular pro-government content. This network appeared to engage individuals in Azerbaijan to manage Pages with the sole purpose of leaving supportive and critical commentary on Pages of international and local media, public figures including opposition and the ruling party of Azerbaijan, to create a perception of wide-spread criticism of some views and wide-spread support of others. From what we’ve seen, it appears that most of the engagement these comments received were from within this network of Pages themselves. Our analysis shows that these comments were posted in what appears to be regular shifts during working hours in Azerbaijan on weekdays.”

Here the biggest credit goes to Facebook whistleblower Sophie Zhang who was the first person to flag these inauthentic accounts and pages to her management as early as 2018 [the year of the presidential election in Azerbaijan] who only took notice after she published an internal memo detailing, how the company was ignoring manipulation of its platform by political parties and heads of government not only in Azerbaijan but in a number of other countries. Zhang was fired after leaking the memo, allegedly over “poor performance.” By then, it was clear the company had to do something. They took notice and removed hundreds of accounts and thousands of pages, reported BuzzFeedNews. 

In April 2021, Facebook said it has removed another “124 Facebook accounts, 15 Pages, six Groups and 30 Instagram accounts from Azerbaijan that targeted primarily Azerbaijan and to a much lesser extent Armenia.” The “April 2021 Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior Report” said, that the network of accounts was discovered “as a result of [Facebook’s] internal investigation.” The report identified “third-party Android applications — Postegro and Nunu,” misleading users “into giving away their Instagram credentials.” At the time [the report was published in May 2021] the company said, its CIB investigation discovered links between the accounts “to individuals associated with the Defense Ministry of Azerbaijan.”

A month before this report was published, AzNet Watch investigated brigading against Meydan TV, an independent and now exiled online newsroom: 

What does art, shopping retail, web design, sports, cosmetics, and e-commerce website have in common? Absolutely nothing, except these, are all various categories available on Facebook when setting up pages. Since 2019, Facebook removed the limit on the number of pages a user can set up. Unfortunately, Facebook did not take into account, how this innocent feature update, if in the wrong hands, can do harm. In the case of Azerbaijan, this is exactly what happened, when Meydan TV, an independent Berlin-based news platform, shared a call for applications for a program, held in partnership with Brussels-based human rights organization, International Partnership for Human Rights in February 2021.

Also in April, The Guardian published this story explaining how Facebook allowed state-backed harassment campaigns, target-independent news outlets, and opposition politicians on its platform.  The story in The Guardian looked at another case of Azerbaijani online news platform – Azad Soz (Free Speech). Its Facebook account was flooded with over 1.5k comments over a post about two men sentenced to eight months. The Guardian investigation analyzed the top 300 comments and discovers that 294 out of 300 comments were inauthentic Facebook pages.  Just like in the case of Meydan TV. 

But it was not just Meydan TV and Azad Soz that were targeted. Mikroskop Media, an independent online news platform based in Riga, too experienced similar targeting. And so did Azadliq Radio, Azerbaijan language service for Radio Liberty.

Now a year later, the new report said it, “disrupted a complex network in Azerbaijan that engaged in both cyber espionage and coordinated inauthentic behavior. It primarily targeted people from Azerbaijan, including democracy activists, opposition, journalists, and government critics abroad. This campaign was prolific but low in sophistication and was run by the Azeri Ministry of Internal Affairs. It combined a range of tactics — from phishing, social engineering, and hacking to coordinated inauthentic behavior.” The list of tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) used included: compromised and spoofed websites; malware and other malicious tools; credential phishing; and finally the CIB. 

Nothing illustrates the extent of control over the platform like real examples. Last month, AzNet Watch successfully helped restore access to a popular page on Facebook, called “Humans of Azerbaijan.” It was compromised in 2017 and remained inactive until fall last year when its new admins [suspected of being the state security services] started posting compromising content targeting various civil society activists. Eventually, the account was returned to its original owner, Mehman Huseynov. But its comeback was short. Earlier this month, the account was compromised yet again. The perpetrators argued with Facebook that Huseynov was in fact not who he said he was, and instead, sent Huseynov’s ID to the company to confirm their “real” identity. The perpetrator claimed that Huseynov hacked the page. Shortly after, all of the pages managed by Huseynov received multiple complaints making the same claims – that Huseynov was not the real Huseynov. Facebook responded by blocking all of Huseynov’s accounts. Including his own profile. The state security services have access to citizens’ private information – including copies of National IDs, phone numbers and other personal information. 

At the end of the day, what platforms like Meta must understand is that these are not some isolated cases but regular, targeted measures deployed by the government institutions and that to really tackle this kind of brazen behavior and prevent the damage inflicted on the platforms’ active users, the company must adopt measures that offer better protection to users, especially from certain civic groups who are often the main targets. Above all, understanding the political contexts and the role platforms like Facebook play in these contexts would be a step in the right direction. So will Meta take notice?  

Website fined for not removing comments on social media page

On February 3, the local court fined Azermedia, the founder of the online news platform yeniavaz.az in the total amount of 1500AZN (approximately 880USD). The prosecutor cited the failure of the website management to remove comments posted on the website’s Facebook page according to Azerbaijan service for Radio Liberty. 

In court, the prosecutor’s office representative said the website management carried the responsibility to remove comments on its social media accounts that are slanderous and insulting. But the lawyer, Nemat Karimli repeated that Azermedia did not violate any rules and that claims by the prosecutor’s office about responsibility to remove comments on social media platforms were baseless. 

Following the court’s decision, Karimli said they will be appealing the decision. 

The court decision follows the weeks-long process between the prosecutor’s office and the yeniavaz.az and concerns a series of articles the website published starting January 12. The published articles cover the case of political activist Tofig Yagublu who was detained during a rally in December, beaten, and then let go. The investigation concluded that Yagublu beat himself and that the police had no involvement in the physical injuries caused to the activist.   

The website was fined based on Article 388.1.1.2 of the Code of Administrative Offenses

for failure to take measures established by the Law of the Republic of Azerbaijan “On information, informatization and protection of information” in connection with the seizure of information prohibited for dissemination placed on the Internet information resources –

individuals shall be fined in the amount of 500 to 1000 manats, officials in the amount of 1000 to 1000 manats, or administrative detention for a period of up to one month shall be imposed on legal entities, depending on the circumstances of the case, legal entities shall be fined in the amount of 1500 to 2000 manats. is done.

Several social media users warned, one sentenced to 30 days of administrative detention

A series of new warnings were issued by the Prosecutor General office to social media users in Azerbaijan. In a statement issued by the Prosecutor General’s office, it claims five Azerbaijani citizens received a warning over their social media posts that the prosecutor’s office described as “violating stability, rights, and freedoms and casting a shadow over state’s efforts to strengthen defense capabilities.”

In addition, a citizen named Namig Aliyev was found guilty of violating the state law on Information, Informatisation, and Protection of Information. According to the prosecutor’s office, Aliyev, editor of Yeniavaz.com news website failed to remove a Facebook post about the story published by Yeniavaz.com website that qualified as “information prohibited from sharing.”

But a series of developments including a statement by Yeniavaz.com website editor show that not only did the Prosecutor Office provide false information about Namig Aliyev’s affiliation with Yeniavaz.com website but that the story the prosecutor office wanted removed directly referred to the prosecutor office earlier involvement in committing violence against an opposition activist.

Timeline of events

On December 1, 2021, a group of activists staged a protest in the capital Baku in support of jailed opposition activist Saleh Rustamov. During the protest, scores of activists were detained, including opposition figure Tofig Yagublu, a former political prisoner himself. The violence he faced in the hands of the police was widely reported on social media platforms.

The head of the Media and Public Relations Department of the Interior Ministry’s press service, while having denied any allegations of torture, promised to investigate the case of Yagublu. 

On January 12, the Prosectur Office said it had finalized the invetigation. According to the results, Yagublu was not tortured and that the signs of violence documented and widely reported were inflicted by Yagublu himself. The investigation claimed Yagublu harmed himsefl and that no police officer was involved in violence against Yagublu. 

Yeniavaz.com published three separate articles on the results of the investigation, most recent one on January 18, 2022. 

On January 24, Yeniavaz.com website editor Baylar Majidov, published a Facebook post, with the following text: 

“The prosecutor arrested a man named Namig Aliyev, and [Azerbaijani] media presented him as the director of Yeniavaz.com. Offically, we would like to note that not only do we not have an employee named Namiq Aliyev but he is certainly not the direcotr of Yeniavaz.com.”

Majidov also wrote that their newsroom never received an official request from the General Prosecutor office to remove any information from the website or from the news website’s social media accounts.   

Also on January 24, in another statement issued by the Prosecutor General Office, it announced its decision to sentence social media user Namig Aliyev to 30 days of aministrative detention for sharing information prohibited by law. The statement also said, the office launched administrative proceedings against Azermedia LLC, a legal entity representing the operations of yeniavaz.com on the grounds that the website failed to remove the information prohibited by law. 

On January 25, yeniavaz.com published a story by one of its authors, Anar Garakhanchalli being questioned at the Prosecutor General Office on January 20, 2022. There Garakhanchalli described the conversation he had: 
I was invited to the General Prosecutor office on January 20. After talking to me first about the state, the importance of the prosecutor office for the state and etc I asked them calmly what was the purpose of my invitiation. They told me, it was an article titled “Prosecutor office: ‘Tofig Yagublu’s state was caused as a result of him beating himself up'” that yeniavaz.com published on its website and shared on its Facebook page. So I asked, if there was something wrong about the story, whether it was a lie. They said, the story was correct, but we are concerned about the comments that were written under the post. I said, if the story was ture, if you have no objections then why am I here? I also added that Facebook has billions of users, how can we be held accountable for something written by others? The officer sitting across from me then said, we suspected that these responses would follow, after giving the story a headline like that. I told this this was ludicrous. You confirm yourself that the story is true, you do not object to any of the wording, and yet you are questioning the reporter’s intent?! 
After two hour long visit, Garakhanchalli was let go. 
No further statements were made by yeniavaz.com while the articles in question all remain available online at the time of writing of this post.
AIW previously documented a number of cases where social media users and journalists received warnings, or fines over their onlline posts. 

Toplum TV Facebook page hacked via SMS interception

On November 3, the founders of Toplum TV, an online news platform, said their Facebook page was hacked. Hackers(s) removed several videos, including one Toplum TV shared yesterday, which was a discussion with an opposition politician Ali Karimli. According to the founders who spoke to AIW, the hacker(s) accessed the page through another founder’s Facebook account, deleted videos, page likes, and changed the name of the page. At the time of reporting this story, the Facebook page was recovered.

In a Facebook post, Alasgar Mammadli, one of the founders of the platform explained in detail how the hacker(s) accessed Toplum TV’s Facebook page by compromising his personal account first.

Translation: This morning at 8.54AM local time, my Facebook account was compromised. The compromise was made possible using my personal mobile phone number. The hacker acquired access to personal information illegally. I only learned about what happened half hour later as I was stuck in city traffic, and had limited access both to my mobile phone and personal computer.  The compromise was made possible by intercepting an SMS sent to my mobile sim card. Meaning, messages sent to my mobile number, were used in parallel by technical supervisors overseeing the telecommunication system in accordance with telecommunication law. Having accessed my personal account [the hacker(s)] were able to access Toplum TV Facebook page, changing its name, [only] deleting archived videos of live debates with Popular Front and Musavat party leaders, and removing several thousand Page likes. Clearly, the reason behind what happened is political intervention. The absolute lack of tolerance to public debates on Toplum TV’s platform has reached such a level, that the perpetrators unafraid, have committed a criminal act prohibited by Articles 271, 272, and 273 of the Criminal Code. This compromise is an act of crime and a grave violation of freedom of speech, privacy, and security of personal data. I demand that serious investigation and preventive action be taken by relevant authorities working within the information security space.

Toplum TV encouraged its readers and followers in a tweet to support their page after hacking:

Translation: Toplum TV’s Facebook page was compromised and its name changed to their name “toplan”. To support independent media, like our Facebook page, and help restore deleted followers.

SMS interceptions are commonly used in Azerbaijan. Below, are a few excerpts from a recent report published by AIW in partnership with International Partnership for Human Rights on the topic: 

The interception of SMS exchanges remains an acute problem in Azerbaijan. In recent years, scores of political activists, journalists, rights defenders, and independent media platforms have had their social media accounts compromised. In many of these cases, those affected have had SMS notification enabled as two-step verification (2FA) procedure for accessing their Facebook accounts. As a result, when their accounts were compromised, they were unable to restore access to the accounts relying on traditional troubleshooting steps offered by social media platforms such as Facebook. Thus, they were unable to retrieve password reset codes sent by Facebook by SMS as their messages were intercepted by the operators, only to be passed on to the relevant government bodies. This experience shows that mobile companies have been involved in many of these attacks. However, none of the operators have taken the blame, so far. The earliest example of SMS surveillance goes back to 2009 when 43 Azerbaijanis voted for Armenia’s entry in the Eurovision Song Contest through votes cast by SMS. A number of these people were summoned and questioned by the security services. In an interview with Azadliq Radio (the Azerbaijani service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty), one of these televoters, Rovshan Nasirli said that the authorities demanded an “explanation” for his vote and told him it was a “matter of national security”. He told the service: “They were trying to put psychological pressure on me, saying things like: ‘You have no sense of ethnic pride. How come you voted for Armenia?’ They made me write out an explanation, and then they let me go.” The authorities did not deny that they had identified and summoned people who voted for Armenia, and argued that they were merely trying to understand the motives of these people.

Three years after the Eurovision scandal, an investigative documentary aired on Swedish TV called ‘’Mission: Investigate” revealed how the Swedish telecommunications giant TeliaSonera, which at the time owned a majority stake of Azercell, allowed “black boxes” to be installed within their telecommunications networks in Azerbaijan from as early as 2008. These boxes enabled security services and police to monitor all network communication, including internet traffic and phone calls in real-time without any judicial oversight. The exposure of these black boxes explains the type of technology the government was deploying already at the time of Eurovision in 2009. The investigation aired by Swedish TV also confirmed that wiretaps were used as evidence in politically motivated cases.

In 2014, an OCCRP investigation revealed how mobile operators were directly passing on information about their users to the respective government authorities. In a country where the government enjoys unprecedented control over the ICT industry and where some of the key players in the market such as mobile operators and ISPs are affiliated with the government or its officials, the findings of the investigation were not at all surprising. The 2014 investigation quoted the director of the Media Rights Institute, Rashid Hajili as saying that both mobile companies and ISPs were obliged to provide special facilities to the Ministry of National Security (MNS)91 for surveillance purposes in accordance with existing legal provisions as explained earlier. In the case of mobile companies, no court approval was sought to eavesdrop on the conversations and SMS exchanges of their customers – a common practice to this day. One of the first accounts of collaboration between mobile companies and the government is that of journalist Agil Khalil. In 2008, Khalil was working on a story about the alleged involvement of MNS employees in corrupt land deals. After taking photographs for the story, he was approached by MNS agents and beaten. The journalist escaped from his attackers and managed to take photos of them. Khalil filed a complaint with the police, and an investigation was opened but eventually dropped, without the perpetrators having been prosecuted or even identified. Soon after turning to the police, the journalist realized that he was being followed. When he filed another complaint with the police about the surveillance, police again failed to follow up. A few days later, Khalil was subjected to a new attack: this time, an unknown assailant stabbed and injured him. Khalil again turned to the police, accusing both the MNS and the mobile operator Azercell (whose services he was using ) of being responsible for the attack. He argued that the operator had helped the MNS to track down his whereabouts, thereby facilitating the attack. The involvement of Azercell in the case became more evident when the operator provided a local court, which examined the journalist’s complaint, with alleged SMS exchanges between Khalil and a man named Sergey Strekalin, who the MNS claimed was Khalil’s lover and had stabbed the journalist out of jealousy. When Khalil’s lawyer requested access to these SMS exchanges, Azercell refused, which called into question the authenticity of these messages. Khalil left Azerbaijan the same year after another attempted attack against him and the continued failure of the authorities to hold his assailants accountable. He took his case to the ECtHR, as a result of which the Azerbaijani government made a so-called unilateral declaration (an official admission) before this court in 2015 that it had violated Khalil’s right to life, freedom from ill-treatment, and freedom of expression and agreed to pay 28 000 EUR in compensation to him. As the government made this admission, there was no ECtHR ruling on the case.

In September, Toplum TV reported it lost 16k followers on its Facebook page. Facebook failed to explain how and why this took place. 

In Azerbaijan, one man sentenced to ten months over a series of tweets

The 35-year-old resident of Nakhchivan was arrested in April, 2021. He was charged with Article 148 of the Ciminal Code (slander or insult using fake accounts on internet information services). In June, the Nakhchivan City Court sentenced the user to ten months.  According to Azerbaijan Service for Radio Liberty reporting, the same court, reviewed the motion filed against the court’s June decison on October 24. In its ruling, the court decided to replace the sentence with a fine. Taking into account, the time spent behind bars since April, the court then also ruled to remove the fine. 

The man, whose name is only identified by his initials, K.M., was jailed over a series of tweets from 2020, targeting the head of the Supreme Assembly of the Autonomous Republic of Nakhchivan, Vasif Talibov. 

AIW was unable to verify the tweets. Only two tweets with the same text appeared in search results. Both belonged to two different users. 

This is the first case where a user of social media platform, was arrested and then jailed explicitly over a text posted online and specifically on Twitter. Previously reported cases of harassment and initimidation of online activists, including detentions and/or arrests were justified with other offenses listed under the Criminal Code. Most common charges are hooliganism, disobeying authority, and drug posession.