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Arzu Geybulla

Research Fellow

Arzu Geybulla is an Azerbaijani columnist and journalist, with a special focus in human rights and press freedom in Azerbaijan. Arzu has written for Al Jazeera, Open Democracy, Eurasianet, Foreign Policy Democracy Lab, and Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty. She is the recipient of the 2014 Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellowship with the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. She was featured on BBC 100 Women Changemakers in 2014. She was Central Asia Azerbaijan Program Fellow at George Washington University in 2016. Arzu currently lives in Istanbul from where she continues covering Azerbaijan.

Array ( [0] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 1541 [post_author] => 11 [post_date] => 2017-03-21 21:30:51 [post_date_gmt] => 2017-03-21 21:30:51 [post_content] => While the Soviet Union might have collapsed over two decades ago, in many of the post-Soviet states, the system by which majority of these countries are ruled is often reminiscent of the purges carried out under Stalin; where political repression; crackdown on the free press and limited space for freedom of association are still prevalent. Not surprisingly as a result, there have been no signs of meaningful democratic transition process especially when the issues at stake are rights and freedoms. The on-going struggle of opposition groups and independent media outlets in the face of authoritarian regimes in many of these countries has become an all too common trend used often to describe the status of present day struggles in post-Soviet republics such as Belarus, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan or elsewhere. In many of these countries, governments continue to promote their agendas while attacking the regimes’ opponents at home and abroad.   Since independence Out of fifteen post-soviet states, seven have not had free and fair elections since independence.[1] These countries are Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Armenia, and Tajikistan. In the Freedom House Freedom in the World report 2017, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan made to the list of 11 countries that scored worst for political rights and civil liberties.[2] Only three post-Soviet countries have had all their subsequent elections be free and fair (Estonia, Lithuanian, Latvia) while the rest have a history of some elections being considered free and fair.[3] Since independence, in majority of the former Soviet countries, regimes are more concerned about stability at the expense of crackdown rather than institutional, and long term reforms. Unlike the Baltic states, in countries like Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Belarus and Russia, regimes have systematically gone after its critics, closing or dismantling media, confiscating and banning newspapers, detaining, arresting, harassing and persecuting opponents.[4] In many of these countries, harsh anti- defamation laws are still in place that are often used to stifle criticism and intimidate political opposition.   It is an uneven battle ground where the ruling power always prevails while being a critic whether an activist, a rights defender or opposition party member, turns one into an easy target of the ruling regime looking to silence anyone for dissent. In addition, the practice of unfair and undemocratic elections, constitutional changes that benefit the ruling regime always miraculously approved by near majority, monopolies virtually across all sectors of the economy, have created a harsher environment with any kind of checks and balances misplaced in what could be described as despotic rule.   In Russia repression, intimidation and political sabotage have led to the near total extinction of liberal opposition while the introduction of lists with ‘extremist’ websites and branding of foreign as well as local NGOs as ‘foreign agents’ have suffocated any sign of hope.[5]   In countries like Azerbaijan, referendums have served as means to consolidate further powers. In the 2009 referendum, President Aliyev, scrapped the presidential term limit and in the most recent 2016 referendum Aliyev secured a longer presidential term, extending it from five to seven years. As a result, next presidential elections that were scheduled for 2018 will now take place in 2020.   Similarly to Azerbaijan, in Tajikistan, President Emomali Rahmon also scrapped term limits. And in both countries, the age limits to run for parliamentary and presidential elections were lowered, which critics and observers describe as signs that the Presidents’ male offspring may be entering the political stage. But the similarities between two countries go beyond just similar amendments in the referendum. ‘The most active people, those who did not give up and did not break down, have been arrested. The authorities have planted drugs, religious brochures, or bullets on them […]’, wrote Muhiddin Kabiri, leader of the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan in an essay for Central Asia Program at George Washington University[6] which has also been largely the case in Azerbaijan. Most recently, a court in Baku sentenced two youth activists to ten years in jail on trumped up drug possession charges for drawing graffiti on the statue of late President Heydar Aliyev.[7]   Hello world, we are rich and famous In his piece, investigating Azerbaijan’s lobbying ventures in the US, journalist Ilya Lozovsky wrote, ‘Azerbaijan is among the top 10 foreign governments buying influence in Washington […] In addition to traditional diplomacy, it has advanced these messages through aggressive lobbying in the think-tank world, in state legislatures, and in the halls of Congress’.   Organisations such as the Azerbaijan American Alliance (AAA) in Washington DC, set up by the son of Azerbaijan Minister of Transportation, or the European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS), set up by the son of the Minister of Emergency Situations in London and Brussels, work with local lobbying firms, host various events and promote Azerbaijan abroad as beacon of democracy and liberalism and a potential source of and home for investment.   Commercial advertisements, promo videos, pro-Azerbaijan articles in international media, are often deployed to push for a positive image. A similar strategy appears to be the branding work of Kazakhstan’s authorities too. Erica Marat wrote of her observations in Nation Branding in Central Asia: A New Campaign to Present Ideas about the State and the Nation. ‘Relaxing in a luxury hotel room in Paris, world travellers are exposed to TV commercials for Kazakhstan, a ‘land of democracy’ located in the ‘Heart of Eurasia’ with similar adverts appearing on the pages of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Economist.[8]   ‘Do you know where the magic lives? Our legacy. Our freedom. Our feelings. Our soul. Our future. Welcome to our world. Kazakhstan, the heart of Eurasia!’ showed one such promotional video on YouTube shared by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan.[9] And yet, Kazakhstan is ranked under ‘Authoritarian’ countries in the Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index 2016, occupying 139th place (out of 167), ranking it just below Rwanda and China but before Zimbabwe and just a few seats ahead of Azerbaijan, which is ranked 148th.[10]   And yet, low rankings by international watchdogs seem to bother authoritarian leaderships little. Outside of Washington circles, Aliyev and his lackeys have made their way into the structures of European institutions undermining the very core of human rights standards. ‘They [Azerbaijan] have done so in close cooperation with Russia’ states a most recent publication by the European Stability Initiative (ESI), a Berlin based think tank, known for its critical report, ‘Caviar Diplomacy: How Azerbaijan Silenced the Council of Europe’ that was published in 2012. The newest report, looks at the progress if any, on the state of affairs at the Council of Europe and corruption and concludes there has been little achieved.[11]   When lobbying is not enough In Kazakhstan, ‘nation-branding has become a permanent feature of the state discourse’ argues Sabina Insebayeva, visiting fellow at George Washington University. ‘Since becoming familiar with the idea of the ‘brand state’, Kazakhstan has deployed a full panoply of branding strategies to cultivate a positive international image, including wide media exposure, ‘spectacular urbanisation’, and aggressive pursuit of image building projects’.[12]   As in the case of Kazakhstan, in Azerbaijan too, no government funds are too much such that, the government of Azerbaijan covered all expenses (including free taxi rides) of some 6,000 athletes who came to compete in the first European Games in 2015. The multi-billion dollar effort cost an estimated US$1.2bn although many said, the real figures are much higher especially when one considers that the Olympic Stadium alone came with a US$600m price tag.[13]   In 2016, Azerbaijan was host to its first ever Formula 1 Grand Prix. Speaking at Azerbaijan-Germany Economic Forum in Berlin, President Aliyev proudly boasted that the race “will attract great attention to our country”. President Aliyev seemed not to be bothered by the tanking economy, and two sharp currency devaluations. But while the president was busy signing off agreements, others paid were paying attention after all. In February 2016, the country was downgraded by Fitch on its long-term foreign and local currency bonds.[14] And just a month earlier, Azerbaijan’s debt was downgraded to ‘junk’ by Standard and Poor’s with a warning to potential investors.[15]   But the most recent stunt in image branding and urge for recognition was adaptation of a book, Ali and Nino, a novel by writer Kurban Said (known as Lev Nussembaum) about a love story between Azeri Muslim Ali and Georgian Christian Nino. The couple’s story revolves around World War I and Azerbaijan’s struggle for independence. But with the film’s executive producer being the daughter of Azerbaijan’s president the film turned out to be more of a love story than a film about the country’s first independent republic and the efforts that went into achieving it.[16] Needless to say, the film received much praise from the authorities.   But praise and dismissal is what many authoritarian states know and do best. When the FIFA corruption scandal hit the media, one of the main event sponsors Gazprom was quick to dismiss the scandal. In fact, the Russian oil giant was the only sponsor who expressed no concern. In an interview with CNN, the company's spokesman Sergei Kuprianov said, “of course, Gazprom’s sponsorship agreement is not affected by the situation around FIFA. How can this situation affect it? It simply can’t”.[17] Kuprianov is absolutely right because no one knows corruption better than Gazprom itself which has been accused of anti-competitive practices in its business operations; suspected of overcharging customers; engaged in fraud, document falsification and money laundering to name a few.[18] But few are going to question this as Russia hosts the 2018 World Cup across 11 of its cities and Azerbaijan chiming in by hosting four qualifying games.   Lies, surveillance and all that jazz George Orwell once said, “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful, and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”. If there is one thing some of the most repressive post-Soviet states like Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have in common, then it is to make lies sound truthful. And they have media to do that both at home and abroad. In the case of Russia, we have observed how over recent years, it has gained momentum through its international mouthpiece outlets Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik while stifling independent media voices at home. While outlets such as Dojd TV and Echo Moskvy radio station continue their presence, some say they are preserved simply as a facade of democracy.[19]   In Turkmenistan, Soltan Achilova, one of the remaining correspondents with the Turkmen service for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty reporting from within the country was questioned by the police in October 2016. She was then assaulted and robbed. This is not the first time correspondents of Turkmen Service Radio Azatlyk have been harassed. In 2015, Saparmamed Nepeskuliev was sentenced to three years in prison on trumped up drug charges and according to Human Rights Watch[20], Turkmen authorities control print and electronic media while exercising control over internet access too. Not surprisingly, Turkmenistan is among the top ten countries where the internet is censored according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.   In a previous Foreign Policy Centre publication, No shelter: The harassment of activists abroad by intelligence services from the former Soviet Union, many of the authors wrote in detail about the various forms of persecution that dissidents face at home and even after fleeing their countries, often having their families go through persecution too, including intimidation and fear. In January 2017, family members of dissident Azerbaijani rapper Jamal Ali were arrested and detained for four days. The arrests came shortly after the rapper released a video titled “Heykel Baba” [Monument Grandpa] on December 31. The lyrics of the song were a sharp criticism of the ruling regime in Baku and for arresting youth activists Giyas Ibrahimov and Bayram Mammadov and later sentencing them to 10 years in jail. In an interview with 29-year-old rapper said, “they are in jail for nonsense, a fact that most people see but can’t express in Azerbaijan out of fear”.[21]   More recently, an attempt to keep top investigative journalist Khadija Ismayil from speaking to the European Parliament from her home in Azerbaijan is not just a matter of concern but evidence of the regime in Baku keeping its critics from speaking at any cost. Ismayil who spent 17 months in jail on bogus charges but who was released in May 2016, cannot leave Azerbaijan, as she is still facing five year travel ban. On February 6, Ismayil was invited to testify on the situation of human rights in Azerbaijan. Just twenty minutes before she was scheduled to speak her internet connection was cut off and five minutes later, the electricity was cut off in the entire district where she lives in Baku. Looking out of her apartment window, Khadija noticed two SUV cars parked outside with satellite dishes on their roofs, blocking the cell service. She was only able to proceed with her call after she left her apartment and was in a taxi. But her call was brief. 10 minutes into her call the taxi she was in was surrounded by three police cars. Surprised, the taxi driver got out of the car, trying to make sense of the commotion outside. He then told Khadija police told him he must drive the car into the car pound. Speaking to the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, Ismayil said it was important she stayed focused, especially seeing as the authorities were eager to stop her from addressing the event participants in Brussels.[22]   The tactic of cutting off internet connection and electricity is new, when one looks at the regime’s history of thwarting measures such as deploying an army of government sponsored trolls for lynching. Over the years, Azerbaijan active netizens saw their accounts harassed by members of IRELI- a pro-government youth organisation; youth branch of the ruling party New Azerbaijan (YAP); other pro-government youth organisations and some genuine accounts who believed the government was right, and its critics were wrong. And given there has never been a sense of free expression and diversity of views, the latter made sure the critics were targeted. These accounts have called anti-government pundits traitors, enemies, liars, and a number of other derogatory terms. When they are not on the offensive, “their tweets are repetitive, and seem automatically generated, full of fawning praise for the government and hatred for those who are not as pleased with the regime as they are”.[23]   Trolls are often put to use at international events too where Azerbaijan is criticised for its dismal human rights record. During OSCE’s Human Rights Dimension Meeting in Warsaw last year, a number of accounts from Azerbaijan hijacked conference hashtag #HDIM2016 sharing graphic war photographs from the Karabakh conflict, demanding conference participants recognise the illegal occupation of Azerbaijan territories and the committed violence.   With the advent of surveillance tools, authoritarian states have also made sure they do not lag behind. In July 2015, it was revealed that Azerbaijan was among 21 clients of a Milan based firm The Hacking Team that was selling surveillance technology. Some of these tools allow authoritarian regimes break into individual’s computers and mobile phones, record Skype calls, turn on built-in device cameras, record audio and steal documents. Other clients include Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan from the former Soviet Union.[24]   It is also not surprising that authorities in Azerbaijan as well as elsewhere in countries mentioned in this paper, have used DdOS attacks (Distributed Denial of Service). 2016 was a challenging year in that sense. According to the Index on Censorship Mapping Media Freedom, there were 38 threats to press freedom including blocked access to critical news websites such as dissident platform Meydan TV, Azerbaijan Service for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, and opposition newspaper Azadliq.[25]   In Uzbekistan for years authorities have blocked access to international media outlets like The New York Times, Financial Times, Reuters, BBC and Deutsche Welle however in a sweeping wave of liberalisation many were unblocked in December 2016. And yet observers are sceptical seeing this as a temporary change.  The country has also introduced some 38 state-run social media sites in past years, one in the summer of 2016. But Facebook and Russian social network Odnoklassniki remain the most popular as their users fear their data is made easily accessible to the authorities. One of the many state-run social media sites servers belong to the state telecom provider, which is an easy access point for the authorities at home to check on its netizens and their presence online.[26]   Russia introduced legislation in 2014 on data storage as part of its surveillance legislation package which allowed the country’s telecommunications agency Roskomnadzor to block websites. A more recent move using this legislation was used against professional website LinkedIn as Roskomnadzor moved to block access to the page for violating the law.   But more recently, trends of cracking down and shrinking space for activists is becoming a global phenomenon and more and more counties are turning to the familiar measures used by authoritarian states to silence dissent and keep tabs on the work that is being carried out by dissident voices. The question we should be asking ourselves is whether we are ready to put on our best suit and continue the fight, or is it that time of the century when mass exhaustion, trauma and frustration will get the better of us? I think there is still some hope despite the “bigly” threats we are yet to witness.     [1] Freedom House, Freedom in the world 2017, Populists and Autocrats: the dual threat to global democracy [2] Freedom House, Freedom in the world 2017, Populists and Autocrats: the dual threat to global democracy [3] Justin Burke, Post-Soviet world: what you need to know about the 15 states, June 2014 [4] Helsinki Watch, The former Soviet Union, 1993, [5] Freedom House, Freedom in the world 2017, Populists and Autocrats: the dual threat to global democracy, [6] Birth and death of democracy in Tajikistan: memories and reflections about elections from 1990 until 2016, CAP Papers 174 September 2016, Muhiddin Kabiri, [7] Arzu Geybulla, Two young activists get 10 years in jail each after graffiti on Azerbaijan Patriarch’s Statue. December 9, 2016 [8] Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 61, No. 7 September 2009, 1123-1136, Routledge, National Branding in Central Asia: a New campaign to present ideas about the state and the nation, Erica Marat, [9] Ministry of Foreign Affairs- Kazakhstan, Kazakhstan - Heart of Eurasia, November 2015 [10] The Economist Intelligence Unit, Democracy Index 2016, Revenge of the Deplorables [11] The European Swamp (Caviar Diplomacy Part 2)- Prosecutors, corruption and the Council of Europe, December  2016, European Stability Initiative, [12] Imagining the nation: identity, national building, and foreign policy in Kazakhstan, CAP Papers 175, Central Asia Fellowship Series, September 2016 [13] Rayhan Demytrie, Azerbaijan’s price for hosting first European Games, BBC, June  2015, [14] Bloomberg, Fitch downgrades Azerbaijan to ‘BB+’; Outlook negative, February 2016 [15] Standard and Poor’s downgrades Azerbaijan’s debt to ‘junk’, RFERL, January 2016 [16] Arzu Geybullayeva, In Baku’s hands, beloved novel becomes nation-branding infomercial,, November 2016, [17] Tim Fernholz, The FIFA corporate sponsor dashboard, May 2015, [18] [19] Witold Waszczykowski, The battle for the hearts and minds: countering propaganda attacks against the euro-atlantic community, NATO parliamentary assembly, Draft Report, March 2015. [20] Human Rights Watch, Turkmenistan: Journalist harassed, assaulted, November 2016 [21] Lamiya Adilgizi, Azerbaijan: Rapper’s Family Punished over song critical of government, January 2017, [22] Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, Released but not free: Azerbaijan’s government fails to silence Khadija Ismayilova, February 2017, Karina Shedrofsky, [23] Arzu Geybulla, In the crosshairs of Azerbaijan’s patriotic trolls, OpenDemocracy, November 2016, [24] Mapping Hacking Team’s “Untraceable” Spyware, CitizenLab, February 2014, [25] Critical websites blocked in Azerbaijan, December 2016, IRFS, [26] Uzbekistan launches its 38th own brand social network, Inga Sikorskaya, June 2016 [post_title] => How governments in the former Soviet Union promote their agendas and attack their opponents abroad [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => governments-former-soviet-union-promote-agendas-attack-opponents-abroad [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2017-12-15 00:32:49 [post_modified_gmt] => 2017-12-15 00:32:49 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) [1] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 2309 [post_author] => 11 [post_date] => 2016-11-21 11:10:30 [post_date_gmt] => 2016-11-21 11:10:30 [post_content] => For some Azerbaijanis living abroad, Baku’s official decision issued on April 30th 2015 introducing a compulsory registration of its citizens living abroad with Azerbaijan’s diplomatic missions in the countries where they live meant very little if nothing at all. But the country’s political émigrés had a different take on this decision[1]. For them, this was yet another step taken by the government of Azerbaijan to spy on and persecute its dissidents who have moved abroad.[2]   Azerbaijan is not the only country in the post-Soviet space to pursue its dissidents living abroad. From Uzbekistan, Belarus and Tajikistan to Turkmenistan, Russia and others, political dissidents face on-going harassment, persecution, threats and, in some cases, even murder. As a result, leaving persecution behind by fleeing their home country becomes a relative concept, as the secret service apparatus, in most if not all of the former Soviet Union states, continues to use measures and methods to keep dissidents on high alert and in fear of imminent danger to their lives and the lives of their loved ones. In some cases these threats include simple surveillance, occasional phone calls and persecution of family members left behind, while in others direct threats to life are made. An attempt to call on its citizens living abroad for a compulsory registration as in the case of Azerbaijan is yet another way used by these regimes to keep tabs on everyone, including those who leave. The following piece looks at some of the cases of émigrés from Azerbaijan, Russia, Uzbekistan and Chechnya, offering a glimpse of a dangerous life even after leaving the suffocating grip of the leaders behind.   Future in fear and uncertainty In the Foreign Policy Centre’s 2014 publication Shelter from the storm? Dr David Lewis noted that ‘alongside intelligence-gathering, exiles face harassment and attempts to persuade them to give up political or journalistic activity or to inform on other dissidents’.[3] The report argued that some of the most effective measures to silence government critics living abroad is to pressure individuals’ families still living in their countries of origin. Other measures include using ‘INTERPOL to target opponents, extradite or forcibly return dissidents to face persecution at home’.   Dashgin Agalarli, an activist from Azerbaijan now living in Georgia knows all too well what such methods entail. In an interview with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Agalarli agrees that leaving the country does not mean the persecution will end: “Those who have left the country due to political persecution are now being hounded abroad” and that the government of Azerbaijan would resort to all measures necessary to round up these individuals of interest.[4] Agalarli was detained in 2014 for six months in Georgia at the request of Baku officials. According to the Azerbaijan service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Agalarli was arrested for an alleged tax debt to the government of Azerbaijan who handed his information to Interpol.[5] He was released following a trial that was monitored by international rights organisations and the UN. Following what happened to Agalarli, the new rule introduced by Azerbaijan requiring all citizens to register with consulates is simply yet another form of surveillance.   Gulnur Kazimova, is a freelance journalist who left Azerbaijan in December 2014 shortly after she penned a piece about a village protest blocking the road to Azerbaijan’s second largest city of Ganja. She was informed that the Ministry of Internal Affairs had launched a criminal case against her on the grounds of distorting the truth in her story. She travelled to neighbouring Georgia with her little boy, crossing the border overnight, her husband joined her with their daughter two days later. They have been based in Georgia since then but the close ties between the two states and the earlier incident with Dasghin Agalarli keep Gulnur and her family on high alert. Gulnur explained to Amnesty International that ‘we have felt signs that we are being watched. For our own safety, we have moved 11 times in just 17 months’.[6] In an interview for this essay held in November 2016, Gulnur also said that she had to switch her child’s kindergarten three times when she realised the same car would appear in places she visited.[7] In the meantime, her brother lost his job in Azerbaijan due to what she believes is a direct consequence of her work. According to Kazimova “he worked at one of the wedding restaurants as a camera person. He was fired after one of my stories was published in Azerbaijan”. For almost a year since her departure, local police in Ganja kept visiting her family and asking questions. Her father-in-law lost his job as well. Police demanded that Kazimova’s parents insist on her return to Azerbaijan.   Pressuring political exiles through family members and relatives is not uncommon in other country cases as well. As Dr David Lewis explained in Shelter from the Storm?, ‘Many members of the family of exiled Turkmen dissident Annadurdy Khajiyev have been harassed, sent into internal exile or imprisoned. There have also been cases in Uzbekistan where family members of dissidents in exile have faced either criminal charges or other types of persecution or harassment in business or everyday life’.[8]   Among other Azerbaijani political émigrés whose family members faced similar persecution there is the case of Gunel Movlud, an Azerbaijan writer who left her home and relocated to Georgia with her husband. It was during her work with Meydan TV and the Azerbaijan Service of Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty that Movlud’s two brothers were arrested, and charged on bogus charges of drug possession while her mother announced that she disowned her daughter in 2015. Writing on her Facebook wall, Movlud wrote, ‘Friends, I do not want to talk much about what has happened. Even a child would understand these arrests are targeting Meydan TV. They don’t want anyone to work with Meydan. They are using relatives to pressure […] The arrest of my two brothers left my parents who are both battling with their health to death [Movlud’s father passed away recently and she was unable to attend the funeral because of the exile] […] They can do anything. I am afraid and fear is absolutely normal […] Those who cannot keep silent will continue to speak up’.[9]   In 2013, Hebib Muntezir an influential Azerbaijani blogger living in Berlin was threatened with death. Muntezir who by then had lived in Germany for the past 12 years received information from various sources that a man named Tural Gurbanov, who had been appointed as second secretary at the Azerbaijan Embassy in Germany, was alleged to be planning an assassination on Muntezir. Muntezir reported the case to the German police.   In April 2013, Muntezir joined forces with another influential political dissident and former political prisoner Emin Milli to set up a new independent media platform called Meydan TV. After successfully launching the platform just months after being tipped off about an assassination attempt, the two learned that the same man Tural Gurbanov had been found dead in a room of a five star hotel in the Maldives. On July 31, the press service of the Azerbaijan Foreign Ministry confirmed the death of its employee stating that the cause of death was heart failure. Gurbanov was reported to be 27 years old at the time of his death. According to Emin Milli[10] and, as explained in an interview he gave to Deutsche Welle[11], Gurbanov was believed to be an employee of the secret service working undercover in Germany.[12]   Death in a time of ruthless leaders There are grimmer stories of dissidents and political exiles from the post-Soviet space trying to dodge the intelligence services. Alexander Litvinenko, former KGB officer and author of the book Blowing up Russia was fatally poisoned in London’s Millenium Hotel in 2006 over a cup of tea with Andrei Lugovoi, also formerly of the KGB family and Dmitri Kovtun, a Red Army deserter.[13]   Two years later, another murder in London of Alexander Perepilichny raised additional questions as lawyers in the Perepilichny case alleged that there were parallels between his death and that of Litvinenko.[14] Recent developments in the investigation indicated traces of Gelsemium elegans also known as ‘heartbreak grass’ poison. His dead body was found near his home in London days before Perepilichny was about to testify in a $220 million fraud case involving Russian officials that had previously claimed the life of Sergei Magnitsky.[15]   The UK is among the most popular destinations for Russians who flee Putin’s regime. In a story penned by Julia Loffe in 2015, the author pointed to Russian official statistics that put the number of émigrés in 2014 at nearly two hundred thousand, a total that does not include the unofficial departees escaping the ‘increasingly authoritarian atmosphere of Moscow and the deepening economic crisis’.[16] After London, comes Paris and New York, with Riga and Prague following in terms of popularity as destinations for Russian exile seekers.   In 2009, Chechen war veteran and former bodyguard to current Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, Umar Israilov was shot twice in the head outside of his home in Vienna in broad daylight. While living in exile, Israilov filed complaints with the European Court of Human Rights that he was tortured by the Kadyrov regime. Earlier that year, another Chechen, Sulim Yamadayev who fled Chechnya in 2008 was found dead from three gun shots in his car in Dubai.[17]   An Uzbek rights activist Nadejda Atayeva, who heads the Association of Human Rights in Central Asia from exile in France, was accused of stealing millions of dollars in an announcement on national television by Uzbek authorities in April 2012.[18] The defamation attempt came days after Atayeva raised the assassination of another Uzbek national, Obidhon-kori Nazarov, who was a prominent Imam based in Sweden but murdered in February 2012.[19] Another prominent Uzbek national was persecuted in Turkey where on December 10th 2014, Abdulla Bukhari [real name Mirzagalip Hamidov] was gunned down in Istanbul at the entrance to one of his madrasas. Known for his criticism of then Uzbek President the now late Islam Karimov, Bukhari is alleged to have been on the target list of both the Uzbek and Russian spy services.[20]  In an interview with Foreign Policy in 2015,[21] another Uzbek human rights activist, Dilorom Iskhakova said that, despite her relocation to Turkey by UN asylum officials, the threats against her have not abated. The usual methods in Iskhakova’s case include phone calls with a man threatening to rape and kill her on the other end of the line.   The most disturbing pattern in all these cases is that of dates and consequences. No matter whether the case took place ten years ago, three years ago or more recently, the bottom line is that political émigrés fleeing the claws of ruthless rulers continue to face threats even while living abroad. And while it is the activists and their family members who pay the price, the majority of leaders behind these continuing extortions remain unpunished, while the persecution of their nationals is a chilling reminder to the outside world, that granting asylum alone is not enough and it takes profound effort on behalf of governments and institutions in the countries where activists seek shelter to ensure their safety and wellbeing. [1] Afgan Mukhtarli, Azerbaijan government watching its expats, Institute of War and Peace Reporting, May 2015, [2] For Azerbaijanis this new rule is not an isolated attempt of control but goes hand in hand with 2014 amendment to the law on citizenship. According to this, deprivation of citizenship may occur if a citizen of Azerbaijan acquires new citizenship; s/he voluntary serves in state bodies, municipalities, armed forces, and other armed units of foreign states; s/he jeopardize state security [no clear definitions on what this entails]; and document/data fraud while applying for Azerbaijan citizenship. In addition, new penalties were introduced in 2015 for failing to inform the relevant state bodies when a second citizenship is acquired. Fines range from 3,000 to 5,000AZN and community service of between 360 and 480 hours. In addition, amendments to the country’s constitution passed on 26 September 2016 allows for Azerbaijanis to be stripped of their citizenship rights ‘in accordance with the law’. Prior to this amendment, the Constitution served as a guarantee that under no circumstances a citizen of Azerbaijan can be stripped off their citizenship. See the Azerbaijan Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, New penalties are proposed for nationals of Azerbaijan attaining new citizenship, April 2015, [3] Dr David Lewis, Exporting repression: Extraterritorial practices and Central Asian authoritarianism in Adam Hug (ed.) Shelter from the storm? The asylum, refuge and extradition situation facing activists from the former Soviet Union in the CIS and Europe, Foreign Policy Centre, April 2014, [4] Afghan Mukhtarli, Azerbaijani government watching its expats, May 2015, [5] Azerbaijan Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Tbilisi wants to hand over Azerbaijan opposition activist Dashgin Agalarli to Baku, July 2014, [6] Gulnur Kazimova, Exiled from Azerbaijan just for being a journalist, Amnesty International, June 2016, [7] Interview with Gulnut Kazimova,Tbilisi, Georgia, November 2016 [8] Dr David Lewis, Exporting repression: Extraterritorial practices and Central Asian authoritarianism in Adam Hug (ed.) Shelter from the storm? The asylum, refuge and extradition situation facing activists from the former Soviet Union in the CIS and Europe, Foreign Policy Centre, April 2014, [9] Arzu Geybulla, Azerbaijan, the land where parents disown their children, October 2015, [10] From personal discussions. [11] Meydan TV, Emin Milli: EuroGames are PR for the ruling family, June 2015, [12] Foreign ministry confirmed the death of its employee,, July 2013, [13] Alan Cowell, Putin ‘Probably Approved’ Litvinenko Poisoning, British Inquiry Says, January 2016, [14] John Keenan, The strange death of Alexander Perepilichnyy, September 2016, [15] Nico Hines, Britain warns allies: Russia’s next assassination could be on your streets, January 2016, [16]Julia Loffe, Remote Control: Can an exiled oligarch persuade Russia that Putin must go? January, 2015, [17] Brandee Leon, Killin the dissidents: Kadyrov can-and has-gotten to many other dissident outside of Chechnya, December 2014, [18] Atayeva is a fellow contributor to this essay collection. [19] Human Rights Watch, Russia: Investigate death threats against defender, January 2013, [20] Yenisafak, Mystery of worldwide assassinations of Ubzbek dissidents unfolds, November 2015, [21] Umar Farooq, The hunted, April 2015, [post_title] => Big brother and his middlemen are always watching you [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => big-brother-middlemen-always-watching [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2017-12-07 11:48:40 [post_modified_gmt] => 2017-12-07 11:48:40 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) )

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