police briefly detains a member of an opposition party over social media posts

Police in Baku detained a member of the opposition Popular Front party over social media posts according to reporting by Turan News Agency. Emin Akhundov was taken from his home on October 31 wrote Akhundov’s father on his Facebook. “Extraordinary things are happening in our country. Yesterday evening at around 19.30, two people from the Absheron district police department came to us, looking for my son (Emin Akhundov). I asked what was going on, and they said it was a minor issue, and that my son would be back home shortly.” Emin Akhundov was let go the next day according to members’ statements shared on Facebook. 

It was not immediately clear what post or posts were the cause for Akhundov’s arrest. In a Facebook post, Emin Akhudnov shared shortly after his release, the activist did not share any additional information only that he was released and that he will continue his activism. Other members of the Popular Front Party took Akhundov’s detention as continued pressure against the party, especially in light of the recently organized protest in the capital Baku. 

 

in Azerbaijan a reserve colonel gets jail time

On October 6, the Baku Military court, sentenced reserve Colonel Elnur Mammadov to six months in prison. The court found Mammadov guilty of slander. Mammadov voiced criticism of the Ministry of Defense on social networks accusing it of cronyism and nepotism. The accusations were also leveled against the Ministry of Defense, Zakir Hasanov. 

According to local media reports, the Ministry of Defense earlier responded to Mammadov’s criticism by refuting the colonel’s claims. 

Mammadov said his arrest and sentence were directly linked to his social media commentary. 

In one of his recent videos, Mammadov said despite his attempts to speak with the Ministry about ongoing nepotism and cronyism within the Army no one listened. Instead, he was dismissed. In its response, the MoD said Mammadov was discharged because of his illness. 

Facebook user questioned over a Facebook status post

Seymur Aghayev, a student, said police unlawfully took him to a police station where he was held for some two hours on September 27. The men who first asked Aghayev to confirm his identity were ununiformed explained Aghayev following his release. When Aghayev asked the reason for this inquiry his questions remained unanswered. The men put him in a car against his will and took him to the Baku Police Station. 

“I was standing outside a grocery store when two men approached me, asking if I was Seymur. I told them that was my name. They were plainclothed and only later at the police station did I learn that the two men were the officers at Criminal Search department at the Baku City Police Station. They left my questions unanswered as we drove [to the police station],” Aghayev wrote the following day on his Facebook profile.

At the station, Aghayev was told the reason he was brought in was a Facebook status Aghayev shared about police violence against citizens. 

In an interview with Toplum TV, Aghayev said, the status was referring to an old video of police using physical violence against a citizen. At the station, following the questioning (police officers also asked about his family members, their employment history, and any religious affiliation) Aghayev was forced to remove his Facebook status. 

In its response to media inquiries, the Ministry of the Interior said there was nothing unlawful in Aghayev’s visit to the police. “He was questioned upon an invite. This is not unlawful,” said the Ministry’s media spokesperson in an interview with Meydan TV. 

authorities in Azerbaijan are considering law on social media – critics say

A recent conference organized by the Prosecutor General’s office in Baku on the recent violations of media legislation has raised eyebrows among civil society. On August 10, an event, titled, “Freedom of the Media and Information Security of Society under the Increasing Influence of Social Networks,” was held at the General Prosecutor’s Office.  Among the guests were representatives of pro-government and government media, as well as GONGOs. According to reporting by Turan News Agency, representatives of independent media or independent media experts were not invited and those who did attempt to attend the event were kicked out, violating Articles 25 and 5o of the Constitution. 

During the event, Prosecutor General Kamran Aliyev said the Prosecutor’s Office was determined to continue taking measures against published content in the media as well as on social networks deemed harmful to national security, not corresponding to reality, and/or identified as violating the rights of citizens.

A number of citizens have received warnings over their social media posts in recent weeks. In a statement published on July 30, the General Prosecutor’s Office said it has warned seven other users over their public posts shared on social media. The Prosecutor’s Office in a statement said the users were warned after the Prosecutor’s Office identified a violation of the Law on Media. Specifically, the statement said, 

During monitoring, it was identified that during the publication of news in media, provisions of Article 14.1.11 of the Law on Media were not observed [Facts and events must be presented impartially and objectively, and one-sidedness must not be allowed]. 

In order to prevent cases of violation of socio-political stability, human and citizen rights and freedoms, a number of relevant persons were invited to the Prosecutor General’s Office and the prosecutor took measures. 

As such, Sakhavat Mammadov, Rovshan Mammadov, Zulfugar Alasgarov, Elgun Rahimov, Fuzuli Kahramani, Zeynal Bakhshiyev and Ruslan Izzetli received a warning based on Article 22 of the Law on Prosecutor – to avoid cimilar negative incidents from taking place again.

The General Prosecutor’s Office repeats, in its appeal to media and social network users, that dissemination of unverified information that lacks clarificaition from the state institutions is unacceptable and holds one accountable according to existing legislation. 

Among those in attendance, was the head of the Press Council, Aflatun Amashov, who proposed to set up a commission in partnership with the Prosecutor’s Office that would regulate the media. For what purpose remains unclear, especially when there is no legislation in Azerbaijan that gives the prosecutor’s office authority to engage on issues of media ethics, media professionalism, or content regulation. 

In May 2022, AIW published a legal analysis about content regulation in Azerbaijan. At the time, an uptick in cases in which social media users faced punitive measures by the Prosecutor’s General Office for their online activism indicated that the Office has taken on a temporary role of taking measures against activists, journalists, and media within the scope of laws on information and media. But continuing involvement of the Office in handing out fines and warnings may indicate that in addition to punitive measures, there is a plan to introduce legal measures on social media platforms. 

Khalid Aghaliyev, a media law expert, told Meydan TV in an interview that the most recent discussions are a sign that the state is mulling over creating a law to regulate social media platforms. Aghaliyev also criticized the proposal of the Press Council to set up a commission. Nowhere in the world, there are institutions set up to regulate media. “These issues are regulated by independent journalists’ unions and their recommendations. But in Azerbaijan, independent journalism and media are problematic. They must be free, in the first place to get used to regulating themselves,” explained Aghaliyev.

Similarly, the head of Azerbaijan Internet Forum, Osman Gunduz, in a Facebook post said, the event organized by the Prosecutor’s Office sets a dangerous precedent. “Such steps create risks for the freedom of the Internet, the development of social media, and freedom of expression in general,” wrote Gunduz. 

Another media law expert, Alasgar Mammadli, writing in a Facebook post, criticized both the Press Council and the newly created MEDIA agency for failing to speak up at the event. After all, each of these institutions is responsible for reforms in the media, wrote Mammadli, and yet they could not say, “Dear Prosecutor’s Office, the functions in this area have been entrusted to me by presidential decree, do not interfere,” wrote Mammadli. 

questioning over social media posts critical of government measures raise concern [updated August 3]

The questioning of political activist Ruslan Izzatli, on July 28 over his social media post renewed concerns over government oversight of social media platforms and its non-transparent approach to cherry-picking issues that it deems unfit for public discussion.

Izzatli was not the first person to receive a call from the Prosecutor General’s Office last month inviting him for a meeting. In an interview with one media platform, Izzatli explained that the prosecutor’s office refused to explain the reason for the meeting over the phone and asked that the political activist comes in person. 

During the meeting that took place on July 28, Izzatli was asked questions about a Facebook post in which the political activist shared some of the grievances of war veterans and servicemen since the second Karabakh war. He criticized the state for lack of measures in addressing these issues. “If Aliyev’s team can visit returned territories today it is because of the servicemen and war veterans. But their problems remain unaddressed,” wrote Izzatli in the said post.   

Izzatli was also asked whether he had evidence for the claims made in the post and why the political activist wrote the post in the first place. The political activist also said he received a verbal warning.

Separately, on July 30, the General Prosecutor’s Office said it has warned seven other users over their public posts shared on social media. The Prosecutor’s Office in a statement said the users were warned after the Prosecutor’s Office identified a violation of the Law on Media. Specifically the statement said, 

During monitoring, it was identified that during the publication of news in media, provisions of Article 14.1.11 of the Law on Media were not observed [Facts and events must be presented impartially and objectively, and one-sidedness must not be allowed]. 

In order to prevent cases of violation of socio-political stability, human and citizen rights and freedoms, a number of relevant persons were invited to the Prosecutor General’s Office and the prosecutor took measures. 

As such, Sakhavat Mammadov, Rovshan Mammadov, Zulfugar Alasgarov, Elgun Rahimov, Fuzuli Kahramani, Zeynal Bakhshiyev and Ruslan Izzetli received a warning based on Article 22 of the Law on Prosecutor – to avoid cimilar negative incidents from taking place again.

The General Prosecutor’s Office repeats, in its appeal to media and social network users, that dissemination of unverified information that lacks clarificaition from the state institutions is unacceptable and holds one accountable according to existing legislation. 

According to Alasgar Mammadli, a media law expert, Article 14 of the Law on Media, applies to journalists, newsrooms, and online news sites. But the majority of the men summoned to the Prosecutor’s Office this time were not journalists Alasgarli told Turan News Agency in an interview. The cited Article 14, cannot be used against individuals for expressing their thoughts. This is clearly an attempt to restrict freedom of expression said Mammadli. Journalist Sakhavat Mammadov who was among the group who received a warning agrees. Speaking with Turan News Agency on August 3, Mammadli said, that the warnings and questioning are meant to pressure activists and journalists and are clearly political orders. “Instead of calming people down, these incidents only raise tension and cause opposite effects. It shows there is an attempt to withhold information from the people, which only breeds rumors and disinformation.” 

AIW has analyzed the Law on Media and its implications on media freedom in Azerbaijan here. Among key findings were poorly worded definitions and excessive requirements and restrictions for online media content [see below Article 14 as an example]; challenging parameters of registration of journalists, especially those working for online media outlets and freelance journalists; and lack of oversight and checks and balances to monitor decisions taken within the scope of the new law. 

Article 14 of the Media Law requires that information published and (or) disseminated in the media (including online media) must meet at least 14 requirements. The law also requires that content published by media outlets should meet the requirements of the Law on Protection of Children from Harmful Information and the Law on Information, Informatization and Protection of Information which provides an exhaustive list of requirements criticized for vagueness.

For instance, Article 14.1.6. of the law prohibiting media from using “immoral lexical (swearing) words and expressions, gestures” contradicts the requirements of the European Court of Human Rights standards as “prescribed by law” on the account that it lacks sufficient clarity and precision. The article also does not comply with a standard, “necessary in a democratic society,” “found in Articles 8-11 of the European Convention on Human Rights which provides that the state may impose restrictions of these rights only if such restrictions are ‘necessary in a democratic society’ and proportional to the legitimate aims enumerated in each article.”  The text authorizes the authorities to consider any impugned statement or general criticism as an “immoral lexical (swearing) words of expressions”. With such a broad definition, this requirement has a chilling effect on journalists.

Article 14.1.11 of the law reads, “facts and events must be interpreted impartially and objectively, and one-sidedness must not be allowed.” A duty to impartial and accurate reporting and one-sidedness is likely to result in journalists refraining from exercising their right to freedom of expression without self-censorship. A failure of this requirement subjects the journalist to heavy sanctions. Furthermore, taking into account the existing political atmosphere in the country, such broadly defined restrictions can prevent journalists and other professionals working for online media from staying impartial without any interference.

Article 14.1.14  concerns published content according to which, “publication (dissemination) of information about the crime committed by a person in the absence of a court order that has entered into force should not be allowed.” Such a direct ban in general form could limit the freedom of expression, in particular, where certain cases are widely covered in the media on account of the seriousness of the facts and the individuals. The journalist also can be subject to disproportionate sanctions for publication or dissemination of information, which is already known to people, for instance in case of scandalous news about the corruption of officials. This clause heavily limits the primary duty of ensuring diversity and plurality of voices in the media.

Any imposed restrictions must meet the requirements as prescribed by law pursuant of legitimate aims (allowed by the international human rights law), necessary in a democratic society, such as proportionality, and non-discrimination.

In May, AIW looked into content regulation on the internet carried out by the Prosecutor’s office and how the measures in place, silence free speech often relying on the use of a restrictive law on Information, Informatization, and Protection of Information. This legal overview was prepared following an uptick of cases in which social media users faced punitive measures for their online activism by the Prosecutor’s Office. At the time, the analysis concluded that the Prosecutor General Office has taken on a temporary role of taking measures against activists, journalists, and media within the scope of laws on information and media and with the powers vested in the prosecutor’s office under the existing legislation on administrative offenses and the law of the prosecutor’s office. 

The day Ruslan Izzatli was questioned, Azerbaijan’s Press Council – nominally independent media regulation authority – held a press conference. Speaking at the briefing, the chairman of the Council Aflatun Amashov, expressed his concerns over circulating social media posts damaging the reputation of the Azerbaijani military. As such, the chairman said the council is ready to offer its recommendations on creating a legal framework to regulate social media platforms in Azerbaijan.

Speaking to Meydan TV, media law expert Khalid Aghaliyev said, the council’s proposal to regulate social media platforms is likely linked to the state’s intentions in having social media platforms open representatives in Azerbaijan and then use these representatives to further consolidate control mechanisms over social media platforms.   

two website editors, and three social media users questioned over “disseminating forbidden information on the internet” [updated August 8]

[UPDATE] By August 8, four more citizens were called in for questioning over their social media posts about the military operations in Azerbaijan reported Qaynarinfo.az. Rustam Ismayilbeyli, Farid Huseynov, Elmar Mammadov, Gulay Eyvazova were all invited to the Prosecutor’s Office where all four received a warning. Ismayilbeyli, who is a political activist, wrote on his Facebook, that he was questioned on August 4, specifically over a Facebook post in which he mentions a quote by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. “I was questioned because of the quote by Ataturk, in which he said, ‘so long as the nation’s freedom is not under threat, starting a war is a crime.’ The Prosecutor’s Office concluded that the quote was a threat to national security,” wrote Ismayilbeyli. In a separate case, journalist Sakha

On July 27, according to Turan News Agency reporting, editors of two news sites, Fikret Ibishbeyli (Faramazoglu) and Agil Alishov were questioned by the General Prosecutor’s office. Ibishbeyli is the founder of jamaz.info and Alishov manages the website miq.az. In addition, according to the agency’s reporting, three social media users were also questioned. One of them, a man named Tofig Shakhmuradov, known as a blogger covering military news was sentenced to 30 days in administrative detention for “posting of information prohibited from dissemination on the telecommunication network, as well as failure to prevent the posting of such information” on Facebook.

Ibishbeyli, was most recently fined in January of this year, on the same charges, “disseminating forbidden information on the internet.” The journalist was fined a total amount of AZN500 [USD295] following a court decision. At the time, the Prosecutor General alleged that an article published on the jamaz.info website caused confusion and fear. 

In May, AIW published a legal analysis on who regulates content on the Internet in Azerbaijan. Based on that analysis, AIW specifically looked at how the Prosecutor’s Office was involved in this process and on what grounds. Currently, two laws regulate what constitutes prohibited information on the internet and the liability for violating these requirements. These are the Law on Information, Informatization, and Protection of Information, which defines the requirements and responsibilities for individuals; and the Law on Media, which defines the (almost) similar and additional requirements and responsibilities for journalists and media.

In addition, the presidential decree dated February 22, 2022, instructed the Ministry of Justice to prepare and submit a draft law on measures for violating information and media legislation on the internet to the government within a month. The law is yet to be adopted and concerns over its text and procedural implementation give ground to worry for a new restrictive law to be adopted not to mention its implications to further stifle free speech online.

Until then, an uptick in recent months, of cases in which social media users have faced punitive measures for their online activism indicates that the Prosecutor General Office has taken on a temporary role of taking measures against activists, journalists and media within the scope of laws on information and media. The prosecutor’s office argues that the official warnings issued by the institution are a precautionary measure for violating existing laws. However as it has been pointed out by the local human rights lawyers and experts, while the prosecutor’s office may be relying on existing bills on Information, Informatization, and Protection of Information as well as the Media, their measures can also be defined within the scope of additional articles of the Criminal Code. Therefore, say experts, the legality of these acts is questionable.

It is still not clear what constitutes “prohibited information”

According to the Law on Information, and Media, while there are general parameters of what prohibited information is, the definitions are rather broad and as such open to interpretation. 

In the case of two editors who received a warning on July 27, the prosecutor’s office claims both websites, published articles that cast a shadow on the country’s Armed Forces. Which articles specifically, however, is not clear. In the case of the social media users, there is no information on what posts specifically were the cause for questioning and subsequent detention of one of the users. In AIW’s legal analysis published in May, we reviewed a number of reported examples where social media users and journalists were warned or received administrative detention over publishing content. In neither of them, there was sufficient evidence to claim violations of the law did indeed occur.

In a Facebook post, media law expert, Alasgar Ahmedoglu wrote if Shahmuradov was sentenced on the grounds of spreading information prohibited by law then the information law enforcement found in violation of the law must be clearly shared as well. “If the prosecutor’s office has found a legal basis for restricting an individual’s freedom of information, it must clearly indicate the date on which the person disseminated that information, what the prohibited information in that disseminated information, and by which specific law the dissemination of that information is prohibited […] A person’s constitutional right cannot be so grossly restricted by merely stating in general terms “prohibited by law,” wrote Ahmedoglu. The expert pointed out, that while applying provisions of existing laws as punitive measures, the General Prosecutor’s Office must also take into account Articles 47 (freedom of thought and speech), and 50 (freedom to lawfully seek, obtain, transmit and disseminate information) of the Constitution of Azerbaijan.   

 

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.