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Azerbaijan targeting families of activists in exile

Article by Giorgi Gogia

November 21, 2016

Azerbaijan wages a vicious crackdown on critics and dissenting voices by arresting and prosecuting human rights defenders, youth activists, critical journalists and opposition political activists, as well as by adopting laws and regulations restricting the work of independent groups and their ability to secure funding. Although in 2016 the authorities conditionally released or pardoned a number of individuals previously convicted on politically motivated charges, they have arrested many others on spurious criminal and administrative charges to prevent them from carrying out their legitimate work. None of those released had their convictions vacated, several face travel restrictions, some had to halt their work due to almost insurmountable bureaucratic hurdles impeding their access to funding, while many chose to leave the country and continue the work from abroad.

 

However, in addition to using criminal and administrative sanctions against human rights defenders, journalists and activists, the Azerbaijani authorities have also arrested, prosecuted and harassed activists’ family members with the apparent aim of compelling the activists to stop their work. As the cases described in this article reflect, the authorities have targeted the relatives of outspoken journalists and activists who have fled abroad out of fear of persecution and continued their vocal activism in exile. In some cases, relatives in Azerbaijan have publicly disowned or renounced their relationships with their close relatives abroad, possibly as a means to avoid retaliation by the authorities for their relatives’ vocal criticism. Below are just some examples of cases from recent years when the Azerbaijani authorities explicitely targetted the relatives of journalists and activists in exile.

 

Emin Milli, Meydan TV Founder and Director

Emin Milli is a dissident and exiled journalist, who is the founder and the director of Meydan TV, based in Berlin. Operating since 2013, Meydan TV is one of Azerbaijan’s last surviving independent media outlets and is only able to operate out of Germany, cooperating with freelance journalists based in Azerbaijan and neighbouring countries. Meydan TV carries material critical of the Azerbaijani government and its policies related to human rights, corruption, and similar issues. Several journalists cooperating with Meydan TV have faced criminal investigations.[1]

 

Milli was imprisoned in 2009 for two-and-a-half years on criminal hooliganism charges, in retaliation for his criticism of the government.[2] In June 2015, authorities arrested Milli’s brother-in-law, Nazim Agabeyov, on drug charges. In April 2016 a court sentenced Agabeyov to a three-year suspended sentence, which includes a travel ban. Milli considers the charges against Agabeyov to be “bogus and absurd,” intended to punish his relatives for his critical reporting.[3] A week after Agabeyov’s arrest, 23 of Milli’s relatives sent a letter to President Aliyev calling Milli a traitor, hostile to Azerbaijan’s ‘great success, development, prosperity and integration with foreign countries.’[4]

 

On April 20, 2016, the Azerbaijani authorities launched a criminal investigation into ‘alleged illegal practice and profit-making in an especially large amount, large-scale tax evasion and abuse of power resulting in falsification of elections and/or referendum results’ involving 15 journalists who cooperate with Meydan TV.[5] The journalists are all at liberty pending the investigation, but at least seven of them face travel bans.[6]

 

The authorities began questioning several freelance journalists cooperating with Meydan TV in September 2015, after the journalists had reported on large-scale protests in Azerbaijan’s fourth largest city, Mingechevir, where a young man died in police custody in August 2015, allegedly from ill-treatment by police.[7] Officials invited the journalists for questioning, claiming to be investigating the Mingechevir incidents. However, the questions related almost exclusively to Meydan TV, its payroll practices, staff, and funding. The authorities placed a number of the journalists under travel bans.[8]

 

Mehman Huseynov, photo and video journalist

Mehman Huseynov is a photo and video journalist and social media activist, who police have been harassing since 2012, when he photographed and publicised police violence as Azerbaijan prepared to host the Eurovision Song Contest.[9] Huseynov is the brother of Emin Huseynov, director of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, who now resides in Switzerland since his offices were sealed shut by the authorities in 2014, as described above.[10]

 

The authorities initiated a criminal case against Mehman Huseynov in June 2012, detained him for a day, charged him with hooliganism ‘committed with resistance to a representative of the authority’, and released him on his own recognizance, but the criminal investigation is ongoing. Huseynov explained that there have not been any significant developments in the investigation in the past three years, but the case is still pending. Police have detained and interrogated him on numerous occasions since then.[11]

 

According to Huseynov, after his brother Emin left the country, the investigator has not hidden from him the motives for keeping the 2012 criminal investigation open. Huseynov said: “The investigator said, ‘We could not arrest your brother, but we control whatever happens to you and your family.’ They cancelled my ID card and passport and I cannot get new ones, and couldn’t travel anywhere, even if I wanted. I received a response this week about my most recent request to travel abroad. They say that I am not allowed to, claiming there is a risk that I would abscond because of the pending criminal investigation.”[12]

 

Officials have never questioned Huseynov about the incident with the police officer and he is not aware of any meaningful investigative steps. Without identification documents, Huseynov cannot authorise power of attorney to a legal representative and thus is also not able to file a lawsuit against any official actions. The absence of identification also prohibits him from formal employment and education.” [13]

 

Ganimat Zahidov, Azadlig newspaper editor-in-chief

Ganimat Zahidov is the editor-in-chief of the major opposition daily newspaper Azadlig and the pro-opposition television program Azerbaijan Saat (Azerbaijan Hour) which is broadcast by satellite for a few hours every week from abroad. The authorities have often jammed transmission and removed the channel from satellite broadcasts, but Azerbaijan Saat has continued to broadcast by frequently identifying new host channels.[14] Arrested after publishing articles critical of the government, Zahidov was sentenced to four years in prison in 2008 on dubious hooliganism charges. He was released under a 2010 presidential pardon, but in 2011 fled to France after officials threated him and his family.[15]

 

According to Zahidov, several of his family members who remain in Azerbaijan have been targeted in retaliation for his continued critical journalism.[16] The authorities detained two of Zahidov’s nephews as well as a cousin in June 2015. A court sentenced the nephews to detention for allegedly disobeying police orders, and immediately brought criminal drug charges against the cousin, Rovshan Zahidov. One nephew was released after serving his sentence, but the authorities brought drug charges against the other nephew, Rufat Zahidov. Both Rovshan Zahidov and Rufat Zahidov were convicted in 2016 on criminal drug charges and are serving six-year prison terms. Both had spent nearly a year in pre-trial detention prior to their convictions.[17] Both have denied the charges and said they never used drugs. Forensic examinations also could not prove any drug history.[18]

In recent years, the authorities have also targeted other journalists affiliated with Azerbaijan Saat. Its anchor, the well-known journalist Seymur Hazi was arrested in August 2014.[19] In the same month, the brother of the programme’s other anchor, Natig Adilov, was arrested on trumped-up drug charges, which Adilov said was in retaliation for his own journalism.[20] Their colleague Khalid Garayev was arrested in late October 2014, when police accused him of hooliganism for ‘swearing in public’, after which he was sentenced to one month in detention.[21]

 

Tural Sadigli, blogger and social media activist

Tural Sadigli, a blogger and political activist, fled Azerbaijan in January 2013 fearing arrest. He continued to author the popular pro-opposition Azad Soz website and Facebook page, where he often posts articles and videos on political prisoners and corruption. In January 2015, Sadigli participated in a protest outside the offices of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, during a visit by President Aliyev. Sadigli’s Berlin protest prompted authorities in Azerbaijan to retaliate against his family members.[22]

 

On February 13, 2015 police in Baku detained Sadigli’s brother, Elgiz Sadigli, on spurious drug charges. According to Tural Sadigli, his brother alleged that police planted drugs on him in the police station and in his car. He was initially held in pre-trial detention for two months on charges of allegedly possessing 1.5 kilograms of marijuana, but then released to house arrest. In November 2015 an Azerbaijani court convicted Elgiz Sadigli, sentenced him to two years’ probation, and banned him from traveling outside of the country. He was interrogated twice during the seven-month investigation into the drug charges, but police focused questions on Tural’s activities in Germany.[23] He appealed the conviction but in January 2016, the appeals court left the verdict standing.

 

Also on February 13, 2015 police called in Sadigli’s father for questioning and held him overnight on allegations of swearing in public. The police informed his father that his and Elgiz’s detentions were in response to his son’s political activities in Berlin.[24]

 

The relatives of at least three other exiled activists who joined the Berlin protest have also been called in for questioning, according to information gathered by Sadigli. Police in Sumgayit and Baku invited their relatives to the police station, kept them for several hours, and questioned them about their relatives’ political activities and who organised the Berlin protest. In one case, police showed one of the relatives a picture of the Berlin protest. Police warned them that they would be in trouble if their relatives in Germany continue their anti-government activities. In two cases relatives apparently lost their jobs as retaliation.[25]

 

Rasul Murselov, opposition activist

Rasul Murselov is an activist with the opposition Azerbaijani Popular Front Party (APFP) and is active on social media. In August 2014, Murselov participated in a workshop in Georgia, which included participants from Armenia, a neighbouring country locked in a protracted conflict with Azerbaijan. Upon his return to Azerbaijan, the authorities questioned Murselov about his contact with Armenians. Fearing arrest Murselov fled and sought asylum in a European country.[26]

 

In September 2015, Murselov’s parents and five other relatives renounced all connections to Murselov in an appeal to President Aliyev and several government agencies.[27] Murselov explained that the authorities’ pressure on his parents was in retaliation for his work: “My parents were repeatedly summoned to the police station and questioned about my activities. They were under pressure and threatened with dismissals from their jobs. Their decision to disown me was the only way for them to deflect the constant harassment from the police and other officials.”[28]

 

Conclusion

In recent years, Azerbaijan have been engaged in a vicious crackdown on critics and independent civil society groups. In its October report, “Harassed, Imprisoned, Exiled,” Human Rights Watch documented the government’s concerted efforts to undermine civil society.[29] In addition to the cases described above of harassment against the relatives of activists in exile, the authorities used false, politically motivated criminal and administrative charges to prosecute political activists, journalists, and others criticising the government and its policies. The government has built a restrictive legal and policy framework to paralyse the work of independent groups. Lawyers willing to defend critics have faced retaliation and disbarment. Although the authorities released several human rights defenders and others in early 2016, many others remain in prison or fled into exile.

 

The international community has responded to Azerbaijan’s lack of respect for human rights in a disjointed and inconsistent manner, hindering the possibility of a clear, unified policy response to the civil society crackdown. Throughout 2015 and 2016 the European Union (EU), the United States (US), and Azerbaijan’s other bilateral and multilateral partners have issued statements deploring the arrests and convictions of activists and journalists and welcoming releases, but failed to impose consequences for Azerbaijan’s human rights crackdown.

 

The severe drop in global oil prices in 2015 took a significant toll on Azerbaijan’s petroleum export-dependent economy. Low economic performance and depletion of oil revenue reserves prompted the Azerbaijani leadership to seek loans from multilateral development banks.[30] This provided additional opportunities for these institutions to insist on institutional reforms, including fostering an enabling environment for civil society as a precondition for certain assistance.

 

The EU and Azerbaijan are about to embark on negotiating a new framework document to replace the 1999 Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which provided the legal framework for EU-Azerbaijan bilateral relations in the areas of political dialogue, trade, investment, and economic, legislative, and cultural cooperation. The new agreement is designed to foster closer political and economic ties between Brussels and Baku, but the lengthy talks on the new partnership will also provide the EU with an invaluable opportunity to press Azerbaijan for concrete improvements in the area of human rights. Efforts should include urging the authorities to release journalists, political activists, and human rights defenders imprisoned on bogus charges; to stop the harassment of journalists, activists, other government critics, and their relatives; to end the crackdown on civil society; and to bring legislation related to freedom of association into line with international norms.

[1] Afgan Mukhtarli, Azerbaijan: Campaign against Meydan TV Continues,  IWPR, November 3, 2015, https://iwpr.net/global-voices/azerbaijan-campaign-against-meydan-tv

[2] For more on Milli’s detention and conviction in 2010, see: Azerbaijan: Young Bloggers Jailed, Human Rights Watch news release, November 2009, https://www.hrw.org/news/2009/11/12/azerbaijan-young-bloggers-jailed; and Azerbaijan: Appeal Court Leaves Bloggers in Jail, Human Rights Watch news release, March 10, 2010, https://www.hrw.org/news/2010/03/10/azerbaijan-appeal-court-leaves-bloggers-jail

[3] Milli published this statement on July 27, 2015: https://www.facebook.com/emin.milli.3/posts/795862850533139?fref=nf&pnref=story

[4] Meydan TV, Relatives disown Emin Milli, July 2015, https://www.meydan.tv/en/site/news/7234/Relatives-disown-Emin-Milli.htm

[5] Meydan TV, Meydan TV under criminal investigation, Meydan TV, April 2016, https://www.meydan.tv/en/site/news/13800/

[6] Telephone interviews with lawyer Elchin Sadigov, August 14 and 17, 2016.

[7] IWPR, Street Protest After Death in Azerbaijan Police Custody,  IWPR, August 2015, https://iwpr.net/global-voices/street-protest-after-death-azerbaijan-police

[8] Interviews with lawyer Elchin Sadigov, August 14 and 17 2016.

[9] Human Rights Watch, Azerbaijan: Retribution Against Photographer,” Human Rights Watch news release, June 14, 2012, https://www.hrw.org/news/2012/06/14/azerbaijan-retribution-against-photographer

[10] The Guardian, Swiss fly out opposition journalist hiding at its embassy,  The Guardian, June 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/14/swiss-fly-out-opposition-journalist-hiding-at-its-azerbaijan-embassy

[11] Criminal Code of Azerbaijan, art. 221.2.2. Telephone interview with Mehman Huseynov, September 16, 2016.

[12] Telephone interview with Mehman Huseynov, September 16 2016.

[13] Telephone interview with Mehman Huseynov, April 10 2016.

[14] Reporters Without Borders, Ganimat Zahid, 2016, https://rsf.org/en/hero/ganimat-zahid

[15] Frontline Defenders, Case history of Ganimat Zahidov, 2016, https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/case/case-history-ganimat-zahidov

[16] Telephone interview with Ganimat Zahidov, April 11 2016.

[17] IRFS, Critical journalist Ganimat Zahid’s relatives sentenced to 6 years in prison, June 2016, https://www.irfs.org/news-feed/critical-journalist-ganimat-zahids-relatives-sentenced-to-6-years-in-prison/

[18] Telephone interviews with Ganimat Zahidov and Natig Adilov, April 10 and 11 2016.

[19] Azerbaijan sentences opposition journalist to 5 years in jail, Reuters, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-azerbaijan-journalist-prison-idUSKBN0L21VD20150129 .

[20] IRFS, Opposition activist Murod Adilov sentenced to 6 years in prison, May 2015, https://www.irfs.org/news-feed/opposition-activist-murad-adilov-sentenced-to-6-years-in-prison/

[21] J Contact.az, Journalist Khalid Garayev arrested for 25 days (UPDATED), October 2014, http://www.contact.az/docs/2014/Social/102900094881en.htm

[22] Human Rights Watch, Dispatches: Jailed in Azerbaijan for Protest in Berlin, February 2015, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/02/17/dispatches-jailed-azerbaijan-protest-berlin

[23] Telephone interviews with Sadigli’s family members, names withheld, and Tural Sadigli, September 15 2016.

[24] Telephone interviews with Tural Sadigli, April 24 and 27 2016.

[25] Telephone interviews with Tural Sadigli and protest participants, names withheld, August 16 2016.

[26] Details withheld for security reasons. Interviews with Rasul Murselov, April 8 and 9, 2016.

[27] “Parents disown their political prisoner son,” Musavat Daily, September 9, 2015, http://musavat.com/news/son-xeber/valideynleri-azerbaycanli-siyasi-mehbusdan-imtina-etdi_291051.html

[28] Telephone interviews with Rasul Murselov, April 8 and 9  2016.

[29] Human Rights Watch report, “Harassed, Imprisoned, Exiled: Azerbaijan’s Continuing Crackdown on Government Critics, Lawyers, and Civil Society,” October 20, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/10/20/harassed-imprisoned-exiled/azerbaijans-continuing-crackdown-government-critics#503126

[30] Jack Farchy, “IMF, World Bank Move to Forestall Oil-Led Defaults,”Financial Times, January 30, 2016, https://www.ft.com/content/9759f42a-c51b-11e5-b3b1-7b2481276e45

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