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Big brother and his middlemen are always watching you

Article by Arzu Geybulla

November 21, 2016

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, https://iwpr.net/global-voices/azerbaijani-government-watching-its-expats

[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, http://www.azadliq.org/a/26971976.html

[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, http://fpc.org.uk/publications/shelter-from-the-storm

[4] Afghan Mukhtarli, Azerbaijani government watching its expats, May 2015, http://bit.ly/2fgN0VY

[5] Azerbaijan Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Tbilisi wants to hand over Azerbaijan opposition activist Dashgin Agalarli to Baku, July 2014, http://www.azadliq.org/a/25452508.html

[6] Gulnur Kazimova, Exiled from Azerbaijan just for being a journalist, Amnesty International, June 2016, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2016/06/exiled-from-azerbaijan-just-for-being-a-journalist/

[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, http://fpc.org.uk/publications/shelter-from-the-storm

[9] Arzu Geybulla, Azerbaijan, the land where parents disown their children, October 2015, http://bit.ly/2eVPV3y

[10] From personal discussions.

[11] Meydan TV, Emin Milli: EuroGames are PR for the ruling family, June 2015, https://www.meydan.tv/en/site/news/6330/

[12] Foreign ministry confirmed the death of its employee, Contact.az, July 2013, http://www.contact.az/docs/2013/Politics/073100044361en.htm#.V_JZzpN96MQ

[13] Alan Cowell, Putin ‘Probably Approved’ Litvinenko Poisoning, British Inquiry Says, January 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/22/world/europe/alexander-litvinenko-poisoning-inquiry-britain.html?_r=0

[14] John Keenan, The strange death of Alexander Perepilichnyy, September 2016, http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/world/the-strange-death-of-alexander-perepilichnyy

[15] Nico Hines, Britain warns allies: Russia’s next assassination could be on your streets, January 2016, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/01/22/britain-warns-allies-russia-s-next-assassination-could-be-on-your-streets.html

[16]Julia Loffe, Remote Control: Can an exiled oligarch persuade Russia that Putin must go? January, 2015, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/01/12/remote-control-2

[17] Brandee Leon, Killin the dissidents: Kadyrov can-and has-gotten to many other dissident outside of Chechnya, December 2014, https://medium.com/the-eastern-project/killing-the-dissidents-513df10d65b#.6d3x8dy3n

[18] Atayeva is a fellow contributor to this essay collection.

[19] Human Rights Watch, Russia: Investigate death threats against defender, January 2013, https://www.hrw.org/news/2013/01/21/russia-investigate-death-threats-against-defender

[20] Yenisafak, Mystery of worldwide assassinations of Ubzbek dissidents unfolds, November 2015, http://www.yenisafak.com/en/news/mystery-of-worldwide-assassinations-of-uzbek-dissidents-unfolds-2349628

[21] Umar Farooq, The hunted, April 2015, http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/04/02/the-hunted-islam-karimov-assassination-istanbul-russia-putin-islamic-state-human-rights/

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