Saturday, September 09, 2017

"Cafe 26" in Baku raided and shut down because of its name

Photo: Trend News Agency
Authorities in Baku raided and shut down a downtown café on Friday "because of its inappropriate name" according to Azerbaijani media.

The café named "Twenty-six" drew the ire of city authorities who allegedly found in its name an insinuation to 26 Baku commissars, a brief Bolshevik government that ruled over Baku in 1918.

Official Azerbaijani historians hold 26 Baku commissars responsible for 1918 massacres that saw more than 12,000 Azerbaijani civilians killed by Armenian paramilitaries in ethnic violence in and around Baku. Today in Azerbaijan those events are officially recognized as the Genocide of Azerbaijanis.

The raid that took place on 8 September was headed personally by Hacıbala Abutalıbov, the mayor of Baku (officially "the Head of Baku City Executive Power" as Azerbaijani cities do not have elected mayors) and major general Səhlab Bağırov, the deputy chief of city police.

Photos published in the media showed the café sign being dismantled and its property taken away. According to the mayor, the café would be shut down, its property confiscated and owners face criminal prosecution.

"The patrons of murderers who organised the Genocide of Azerbaijanis are still alive," the media quoted the mayor Abutalıbov saying, "they had courage to write "26" not only in Azerbaijani but also in English."

However, Ramin Məmmədov, the café owner in his comments quoted in the media rejected the "commissars" connection:
It is related to my birthday. When I opened this café I was 26. Also my car plate ends in 026. As if this number has always been my lucky number. If I wanted to name the café after the [opposite] park, I had used its current name. Why should I use the former name of the park?
The café leasing the premises of the Writers' Union was opposite Sahil Park which was called "26 Baku Commissars Park" during Soviet era.

According to Çingiz Abdullayev, the Secretary of the Writers' Union the café was in operation for some years and only a day before the raid "one historian noticed the connection" and told the owner to change its name. The owner obliged but the events took unexpected turn the next day:
The mayor of a city with millions of residents arrives with police officers, closes the café down, takes away the furniture. They say they will arrest [the café owner]. According to which law? How can you destroy and confiscate the private property of a businessman without a court decision? How can you arrest him?
In a separate statement, the Writers' Union also condemned the incident. The Union's public relations official Xəyal Rza told the press that
"One person names his business "26", the other one names it "28". Does it mean that in order to use number 26 we should ask permission from Hacıbala Abutalıbov?"
Abdullayev, the Union secretary had more candid remarks. "People in Israel, USA, and Russia are laughing at us now," he wrote on Facebook.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

End of the Internet in Azerbaijan, as we knew it

Internet cafe in Baku ( (Photo:
Back in 2012 when world's Internet community gathered in Azerbaijan for the Internet Governance Forum – IGF, they got an uncanny surprise. Wi-Fi in the expo centre hosting the IGF was not working

Maybe it was a purely technical problem or it could be an unintended result of some financial corruption when money allocated for setting-up Wi-Fi equipment was misappropriated leaving the venue with under-capacity Internet access. Corruption is no stranger to us – entire Ministry of Communication and High Technologies was overhauled in 2015 and several of its high-ranking officials are behind the bars for abuse of official powers and embezzlement of public funds.

However, back in those days the word "technical" was the buzz word in both the Azerbaijani government circles and our Internet community. Our infrastructure was underdeveloped, claimed the government, and that was the only problem in Azerbaijan preventing wider Internet access. We had only technical obstacles, the government assured us, and we were going to overcome them with investments from the windfall of oil money.

Our Internet community, namely its activist section objected that the Internet was only technically free in Azerbaijan, but politically not free. Every Azerbaijani activist had their own swords of Damocles hanging over their heads, I used to say, and no-one knew when they were going to fall. And with all the avenues – TVs, print media, universities and public squares – closed to free speech, this hypothetical island of free speech in Azerbaijan, the Internet, how long would it remain un-submerged?

What made the matter worse was that our even hypothetical Internet freedom was not guaranteed in the law books. Loose provisions of the laws were leading to occasional blocking of websites. Aside from some satirical blogs and Iranian-sponsored religious propaganda websites, even Imgur, an innocent photo-sharing platform fell a victim for a short time.  However, blocking of websites was an exceptional measure back then. Despite being an arbitrary measure, the government was resorting to it only in selected circumstances.

One local Internet activist was telling all the time that the only ground for Internet freedom in Azerbaijan was the presidential promise. "Internet is free and it will always remain free," were saying President Ilham Aliyev. And what if he changed his mind?

This change of mind came somewhere between 2013 and 2015. In May 2013 Azerbaijan criminalised online defamation contrary to all recommendations, its international commitments and even against the National Action Plan for Human Rights which envisaged abolition of criminal defamation at all. Starting from 2013, harsh government persecution ended the vibrant civil society and youth movements in Azerbaijan. Journalists, as well as NGOs and activists dealing with free speech and Internet freedom were the first victims. Many activists fled the country, NGOs were closed or shut down, and dozens of civil society and youth movement leaders were sent into jail. Azerbaijani edition of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty and many independent journalists were forced out of country.

Internet became the only tool and space available for those activists who chose to stay. Many activists who established themselves in exile also made the Internet their main resource to broadcast their message into the country. With oil prices plummeting and economic situation getting worse on daily basis, it was evident that the government was no longer inclined to tolerate any dissent whether it was online or offline. The days of the hypothetical free Internet were also numbered. The Republic of Facebook was doomed.

First came the cyber-attacks. Fake accounts and malware targeted dissidents in Azerbaijan, and according to independent researchers, news media websites came under attack from the government infrastructure. Toward the end of 2016, silent attempts were made to restrict access to news websites publishing critical articles about the government. Then in early 2017 the government finally moved into an open battle.

On 15 February 2017, the relevant committee of National Parliament adopted draft legislation on amendments to the Law on Information, Informatisation and Protection of Information. The amendments introduced into the existing law a whole new chapter regulating Internet and empowering the government to block websites. Legal experts considered these changes as introduction of Internet censorship in Azerbaijan while the criteria was vaguely defined and open to abuses.

These new provisions were paving the way to stricter government control over the Internet with the Ministry of Communication monitoring websites, identifying illegal content and taking measures to remove or block that content. Any information "creating threats to the interests of state and society protected by the law" or "creating unavoidable situations that present a real danger to human life and health" would be subjected to a take-down notice. If not removed after eight hours, those websites would be "temporarily" blocked and the issue brought before the court. Subsequently, the court might decide to either uphold the decision of the ministry or overturn it.

These amendments which could be characterised as state censorship were hastily passed through the Parliament and the President signed them into the law in less than a month – on 16 March. The amendments were officially published on 19 March and entered into force. And less than in a week after their official publication, these provisions were already put into use.

On 27 March 2017, opposition-affiliated, and websites (online resources of Azadlıq newspaper and Azərbaycan saatı satellite TV programme), (Azerbaijani website of RFE/RL), and (a website run by political immigrants in Berlin) were abruptly blocked in Azerbaijan. After a few days, at least two more online resources, and joined the list.

The Ministry of Communication initially rejected any responsibility, but after a few buzz and fuss at home and abroad, it was finally revealed that the former five websites were blocked by the Ministry of Communication acting on the official request from the Prosecutor General.

The case was taken to court and the worst predictions of legal experts proved to be a reality. The new broadly-defined legal provisions were displayed in their full beauty – the websites critical of the government were accused of all sorts of existing vices – calling to violent overthrow of the constitutional order, propaganda of religious radicalism, inciting people to conduct mass suicides, evading taxes and misappropriating funds, as well as working without official accreditation.

The shrine is mine, and I know what miracles it may perform, says an old Azerbaijani proverb. We all know how effective are the Azerbaijani courts in delivering justice. Therefore what the court did was utterly predictable – it ruled to uphold the decision of the ministry.

One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind, famously said Neil Armstrong. What seemed to be one routine ruling for an Azerbaijani rubber-stamp court, was in fact a huge milestone for the Azerbaijani Internet. That one day Azerbaijan may enter the prestigious club of Internet censors – this was not the direction we were heading to. At least, it didn't seem in the horizon. No-one including me could imagine this just a few years ago. And what is next for Azerbaijan? Blocking social networks? Creating its own "halal Internet"? Registering with your ID card to use public Wi-Fi? And heading toward a happy care-free national cyberspace with only cute cats and obligatory portraits of late President Heydar Aliyev?

We have a belief that a catastrophic change happens in a day and violently upends everything around. Roman empire collapsed in 480 AD, German democracy was murdered the day Hitler assumed power, and the World War II started on September the First. But that common misconception of a boiling frog, however misconceived it is, is still what describes our human reality better than history textbooks. The only difference is that the frog eventually jumps out whether you put it directly into the boiling water or you heat the water gradually. But we don't jump out, in most of the cases.

* * *

P.S. An incomplete list of websites blocked in Azerbaijan: – RFE/RL Azerbaijani Service – sister website of RFE/RL Azerbaijani service – "Azadliq" newspaper (opposition Popular Front Party) – news & religious website set up by Azerbaijani students in religious seminaries in Qom, Iran –  news website run by opposition Nida movement – independent online TV channel & news website – website run by emigrants in Berlin

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

What is going on in Azerbaijan and its NGO sector now?

Some ruins in Gobustan National Park
Apparently, the Azerbaijani government is trying to impose new règles du jeu – rules of the game – and not only in the NGO sector – and facing little resistance.

On 24 July, President Aliyev issued an enigmatic decree abolishing the grant registration rules (a small, but crucial part of the draconian national NGO legislation adopted on 12 February 2004) and tasking the relevant authorities to prepare new rules that will be effective by November 1, 2014.

The decree caught the civil society by surprise and in fact, no-one could explain what it supposed to mean in our troubled times. Only Elesger Mammadli of IREX made somehow an intelligible guess that these rules might relate to a possible introduction of an electronic system, but beyond that, the decree is still shrouded in secrecy for many leading civil society activists.

My guess is that the issue at stake is not only the new rules of grant registration, but overall rules of the game that are planned for future NGO activities in Azerbaijan. And not only for NGO activities.

Troubled times

Civil society and especially the NGOs were always under pressure in Azerbaijan, but these days, the amount of pressure is unprecedented. NGOs are facing triple pressure in the forms of political, administrative and judicial persecution.

Some leading activists are arrested and tried in courts, others face various inspections from ministries of justice, taxes and finances (possibly followed by further arrests and trials). Bank accounts of at least 12 NGOs are frozen and they are under a high-profile criminal investigation.

Two leading (even backbone) organizations in the country – the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS), as well as the Media Rights Institute (MRI) are knocked out.

IRFS is closed down by authorities, and its head -- Emin Huseynov vanished. His disappearance was so peculiar that one of the so-called opposition newspapers -- “Yeni Musavat” published a ridiculous article speculating that he was smuggled out of the country by CIA in an "Argo" movie style.

MRI will close down by its own decision – its head Rashid Hajili cited financial difficulties, loss of donors and negative campaign.

And needless to remind, Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center (EMDS) was a victim as well and two of its leaders are already in jail.

Not only critical NGOs, but also loyal and pro-government ones face enormous difficulties. Frightened banks are refusing to cooperate with the civil society actors and as a result, all NGO activites have come into a standstill. As far as I know, many NGOs can’t pay any salaries and other payments since June (and now, it is the middle of August!).

The current crackdown does not only concern the local NGOs. Local offices of international and foreign NGOs are also under pressure.

After last year’s successful campaign against NDI and effectively routing it out of the country while one of the most ablest US ambassadors to Baku Richard Morningstar stood by and watched its demise in utter powerlessness, the emboldened government moved on against other foreign, mostly US organizations.

Peace Corps is in trouble, IREX’s banks accounts are frozen and there is an orchestrated campaign against a new would-be USAID media grant. Sudden tax and financial inspections have been conducted in many foreign organizations.

Perhaps, the most pitiful situation is that of Oxfam. Though Oxfam keeps it in strict confidentiality, occasional media reports reveal that they are under a very harsh investigation and the case may go to court, leading to criminal prosecution. However, the latest rumor in town is that Oxfam has decided to pull out of the country for good.

No foreign donors, no foreign money

One of the trends that can be seen is that foreign donors, foreign organizations and foreign money are no longer welcome.

Call it post-Ukraine syndrome, but the government is very keen at looking for some fictitious connections between foreign funding and anti-government protests (e.g. NDI case earlier) and Victoria Nuland’s famous “Fuck the EU” and other misinterpreted comments didn’t help either.

Many NGOs that face persecution these days are grantees of NED and many frozen bank accounts are related to NED grants. (And it didn’t help that NED removed the names of Azerbaijani NGOs from its website.)

Current pressure on IREX may also be explained by the guess that the government don’t want it to receive the new USAID media grant. If IREX doesn’t get it, their media division will be closed in the fall. With no media division of IREX, with two of its partners (IRFS and MRI) knocked out, there will be less problem, and of course, less freedom of speech.

And the government is doing a lot to change the overall funding dynamics of local NGOs. If in 2012, NGOs (and state institutions) received grants worth of 40 million AZN (51 million dollars) and 3/4 of it came from foreign donors, then in 2013, they received 67 million AZN (85 million dollars) and 65% of it came within Azerbaijan.

These is anecdotal evidence that one Azerbaijani official told some NGO guys if they want to work, they should come to the government: 'Why do you go to foreigners for money? We have money, just ask us.'

No untouchables

There was always a kind of strange and blind belief in the Azerbaijani civil society: They can arrest some political activists, but a civil society activist? Never. OK, they can arrest some small civil society activists, but a big NGO boss? Never. OK, they can arrest some small NGO bosses, but Leyla Yunus? Never!

Recent arrests of Leyla Yunus (Dame of the French Legion of Honor) and her husband Arif, and after them, the leading Azeri human rights advocate (“the conscience of Azerbaijan”) Intigam Aliyev showed that there will be no untouchables.

Everyone in the field will be punished if they are not willing to abide with new rules of the game. Do we see here some form of bay'ah resurrected? I don’t know.

Azerbaijan’s prestigious chairmanship in the Council of Europe, membership in the UN Security Council, number of foreign conferences you attend as a civil society representative or whether you met with François Holland or any other visiting high ranking foreign officials – nothing will help.

It seems this is the new message to the civil society that watched political persecution and arrests from their relatively comfortable vantage points for many years and compiled lists of political prisoners. Now, they will also be in those political prisoners lists, if there will be any lists at all.

No dissent regarding political prisoner issues.

Speaking of political prisoners lists, the recent high-profile arrests also seem to be related to them. Recently arrested Leyla Yunus, Intigam Aliyev, as well as Rasul Jafarov – all of them were members and leading figures of an unofficial working group of human rights defenders and lawyers that was preparing a reconciled list of political prisoners.

It seems that a main motivation behind these arrests was to prevent the reconciled list to be prepared and published (this is also noted in a piece of analysis by Turan news agency), so that when a great friend of Azerbaijani government, a fervent caviar gourmand and the CoE official in charge of Azeri political prisoners, Pedro Agramunt visits Azerbaijan, there will be no-one left to discuss alternative opinions on the issue.

The government is trying to neutralize and send to the archive the issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan. And they are partly succeeding.

Although the reconciled list was prematurely released by Khadija Ismayil after the motivation behind the arrests became explicit, it caused some divide among the civil society with bitter accusations of treachery and betrayal. For example, MRI refused to sign it and it led to a lot of negative campaign against MRI. There was also another serious scandal regarding the Azebaijani National Platform of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum.

The final thing is, despite government efforts, there is now a reconciled list of political prisoners, born out of hard labor. However, whether Mr. Agramunt will be impressed by it or not -- that is the question.

Friday, April 18, 2014

A Dangerous Alternative

Erkin Gadirli (Photo from Public TV)
With one face turned toward ‘natives’ and a totally different one – toward the international community, how democratic and ‘new’ is the Republican Alternative?

It seems something is rotten in the Republican Alternative Movement – REAL. Once founded as a beacon of progressive and liberal ideals, and promoting ‘new’ politics to the disenchanted Azeri public, now REAL’s reputation is being tarnished by a strange paroxysm of a political schizophrenia.

It is not in nice press releases, neat interviews to media or private chats with embassy officials that the true essence of REAL is revealed. If you want to get closer to what REAL is about, you should turn to Facebook, the holy ground of Azerbaijani opposition movement.

It is in Facebook that one of REAL’s founders, a current member of its board and current chair of its political council and the first in REAL’s line of succession Erkin Gadirli is manifesting his vision of “a right-wing authoritarian rule”, “five years without democracy” and “harsh measures to clean the political arena”.

For example, in December 2013, in a moment of another revelation, Erkin Gadirli eagerly put forward his following statements:
“I’m not a democrat...”
“I’m a proponent of a right-wing authoritarian rule – harsh measures to clean the political arena…”
“I’m not a proponent of a personality cult based political power, but I am for a right-wing dictatorship.”

And here is another of his great moments in Facebook where he puts forward his vision for a post-Aliyev Azerbaijan:
Taking into account our geography, history, neighbors, risks, resources and capabilities, I have come to the conclusion: We need to do a lot for a strong, free, fair and wise Azerbaijan. There will also be a need for democracy, but later. Democracy is not even in the list of top 10 that is needed to be done. Democracy should not be perceived as a goal, but a result. That is, democracy should be seen as a side effect of more important things with other specific goals.
Or let’s take into account Erkin Gadirli’s infamous call for poisoning of Armenian leaders, and subsequently arresting scapegoats from “the radical opposition” and trying them in a kangaroo court. One cannot read this without true terror. Isn’t the leader of REAL, “the radical opposition”, Ilgar Mammadov arrested as a scapegoat for Ismayilli riots and tried in a kangaroo court and received 7 years in jail?

Though Ilgar Mammadov showed utmost common sense and issued a strong statement from the jail condemning this irresponsible hate speech, Erkin Gadirli is still unrepentant. In his latest interview two days ago, Erkin Gadirli not only reiterated his statement, but also hurled personal attacks at me for I dared to criticize his speech for irresponsibility and hate-mongering.

Except a single case of Ilgar Mammadov’s statement which was indeed a last-minute lifebuoy for REAL, Erkin Gadirli’s manifestation of ‘a right-wing authoritarian rule’ is still going around unchallenged, especially within the REAL movement.

Leaders of REAL movement do not denounce or disown Erkin Gadirli’s irresponsible statements, but they greet his statements in utmost silence or even silent agreement. No-one is trying to restrict a right-wing orgy consolidating around Erkin Gadirli’s populism. REAL is in danger of becoming an umbrella that will gather all kinds of fringe elements with slogans of anti-democracy, right-wing dictatorship and ethnic hate-mongering.

However, in their nice press releases, interviews and embassy chats, they are still advocating for free media, free and fair elections, independent courts and triumph of democracy.

I’m not a decision-maker in this case, neither I’m a member of REAL movement, but common sense tells me that there are only two solutions out of this ugly situation.

Either REAL should part their ways with Erkin Gadirli and denounce his anti-democratic, right-wing and hate-mongering statements and stop the right-wing orgy he helped to unleash or REAL should continue to have him to chair their political council and to be their public face. The latter will mean that we will get a BNP or Le Front National that will leave us thanking for velvet gloves and cold rationality of Ilham Aliyev.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Azerbaijani court issues yet another Facebook verdict

Ilham Mirzayev (Photo:
A district court in Baku issued an order to Facebook to take down a page deemed libelous to a popular Azerbaijani TV host, psychologist, astrologist and fortuneteller. The order will be sent to Mark Elliot Zuckerberg ASAP.

Azerbaijan has criminalized online defamation despite numerous objections and now even a casual Facebook status or a blog post can land you in jail for up to three years. Last year, Astara District Court in southern Azerbaijan also issued the first Facebook verdict and convicted a former bank employee for criticizing his former employer on Facebook. Luckily, an appeal court overturned the verdict and the same Astara District Court reviewed the case and acquitted the online critic.

However, as long as defamation remains criminalized and online speech is subjected to harsh regulations, new cases will continue to pop up. And this is where enters yet another Facebook verdict.

The story is a bit complicated and not all details are clear, but it has evolved from a popular TV host’s apparently personal feud with a private citizen.

Ilham Mirzayev, a multifaceted TV host, who is also a psychologist, astrologist and fortuneteller, has been allegedly attacked by a private citizen. The attacker is now behind the bars and in court, and the attacker's mother has gone public about the issue. She has given interviews to media, among them Azadlig and Yeni Musavat newspapers – usual suspects.

To make the story more complex, there is a Facebook page with 17,000 fans and titled İlham Mirzəyevin yalanları (Ilham Mirzayev’s lies) that routinely criticizes Ilham Mirzayev. Naturally, the page was quick to pick up the story and use it to denounce Mirzayev further.

Ilham Mirzayev has brought up a case in Narimanov District Court in Baku against the attacker's mother, the newspapers and Facebook. Yes, against Facebook. And luckily, it is only a civil case, not a criminal one. Mirzayev claimed that he was defamed and asked for 160,000 manats (manat = euro) in material damages from the mother, refutation and apology from the newspapers and removal of the libelous page from Facebook.

Narimanov District Court in Baku has reviewed the case and agreed that Ilham Mirzayev was indeed defamed. The court ordered the mother to pay 2,000 manats in material damages to Mirzayev, the newspapers – to refute and issue an apology.

And this is the most interesting part the court also ordered Facebook to take down the above-mentioned page. According to Gündəlik Teleqraf newspaper, the court order demanding Facebook to take down the page will be sent to Mark Elliot Zukerberg.

I just wonder whether the legal department of Facebook will be caught in surprise or not.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Azerbaijani Politician Calls for Assassination of Armenian Leaders

Erkin Gadirli in the 2010 parliamentary
election debates (Public TV)
Revenge, not justice is needed for Khojaly, says Erkin Gadirli, the new generation opposition icon.

Every year in Azerbaijan and among the Azerbaijani Diaspora, the commemoration of the Khojaly tragedy anniversary turns emotional – with old wounds not healed yet and perpetrators of the biggest war crime in the Nagorno-Karabakh war still being at large.

A state-sponsored campaign under the banner of “Justice for Khojaly” is held in mostly European and US cities to commemorate the massacre of hundreds of innocent Azeri civilians among them many women and children at the hands of Armenian military units. At home, the tragedy is widely remembered across all segments of the society.

Azerbaijani social media is also filled with reactions and emotions from both public figures and ordinary citizens.

However, this year, there was a small surprise that shocked and galvanized the Azerbaijani online community. Erkin Gadirli, a new generation opposition politician and an icon among independent and opposition-minded youth has dropped a bomb that reverberated across the social media (full discloser: I have also reacted to it).

Erkin Gadirli is one of the founders of Republican Alternative (REAL), a new generation opposition political movement that declares the democratic principles and republican ideals as their core values. Gadirli is also the chairman of its political council – the Majlis.

On the anniversary of Khojaly massacre, Erkin Gadirli posted a public post on his Facebook profile calling for assassination of Armenian leaders, among them the current president of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan, in an act of revenge against the Khojaly massacre. Here is his full statement:
What we need for Khojaly is revenge rather than justice! The main perpetrators of the crime – Robert Kocharyan, Seyran Ohanyan and Serzh Sargsyan must be assassinated. Our national security services should have done it already. It is possible technically. There is no need for a demonstrative revenge. It is enough if their food gets poisoned. Then we can deny it and even give our condolences. In any case, we can blame “radical opposition”, “popular avengers” or someone else (if there is no-one, we can create them) and we can even set-up a sham court (with special favors for prisoners inside, followed by amnesty). We can accomplish this task even with the help of Armenians themselves or the third party. The only thing is to be sure that they will not die from natural causes.
Gadirli’s statement brought immediate debates, discussions and even some personal attacks and bitter accusations in the small, but politically-conscience Azerbaijani community online. A lot of harsh criticism was addressed to Erkin Gadirli, who is a respected law expert -- he did even participate in preparation of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court -- but Gadirli also received significant support, especially from nationalistic circles and among those people who think that justice and peace process failed in the case of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

As a response to criticism, Erkin Gadirli posted a lengthy explanation the next day, basically reiterating his position and answering to various arguments he was addressed – saying that he was not liberal or humanist; he was not speaking as a lawyer, but as a politician; that the courts and conventions didn’t matter in this case; as well as he didn’t care for any negative reaction from “the West”.

“I’m not humanist, nor liberal. Yes, I’m a kind and mild person, but I’m not irresolute or coward. I have my own limits. I can compromise on many things in daily life, but I am strong on my political principles. If needed, I can take the responsibility to carry out the just revenge and I’m ready to serve the prison term for it,” wrote Erkin Gadirli.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Further comments on the article censored by Meydan TV

From my previous blog post, you may already know about the article censored by Meydan TV. The article penned by Arturo Desimone was first published and then removed by Meydan TV, citing objections from Murad Gassanly, a UK-based Azeri exile and politician

I have already put extensive comments, the article itself and the statement by Meydan TV here, but I also want to make some additional comments on the issue.

Meydan TV stated that “Murad Gassanly claimed that he never said or wrote thoughts that were given in that article as his words/thoughts and asked us to remove that article unless we want to face legal action in the court.” Meydan TV also claimed that “references made to Murad Gassanly in that article could not be backed by any quotes, articles, links”. Meydan TV has contacted “Nijat Garayev who sent Arturos Desimone's article” for any proofs, but Nijat Garayev allegedly couldn’t find any. Therefore, Meydan TV decided not to run the article.

I have also contacted the author – Arturo Desimone and communicated with him on his article and asked about references to Murad Gassanly that Arturo based his opinion on. Arturo kindly directed me to a piece, authored by Murad Gassanly and published on the Radio Liberty website (Russian section of the Azerbaijani service). 

Because the article was in Russian, I have translated it into English and I post it below. The translation is not beautiful because I have tried to follow Murad Gassanly exactly word by word, structure by structure, sentence by sentence.


Disputes around suicide of a gay leader

Murad Gassanly

I am not going to comment on the fact of suicide of a very young – 20-year old chairman of “Free LGBT” organization in Baku, Isa Shahmarly. This is a terrible tragedy for his family and his friends. But while observing reaction of the public, I wanted to note that taking the whole society responsible for this suicide by some users of social networks and bloggers seemed absurd to me.

Azerbaijan is a fairly tolerant country toward sexual minorities and not only in comparison with other Muslim countries, but even in comparison with many European ones. Just try to be gay in Hungary, for example…

I am against all forms of discrimination and public and state interference into private lives. But at the same time, I understand the concern of many friends of mine who don’t like the aggressive propaganda of sexual minorities and alternative lifestyles. There must be a balance between the human right to private life on one hand, and public and collective values, culture and traditional family form on the other hand.

Finding this balance is a long political road. For example, when I arrived in England 20 years ago, teachers were forbidden to mention homosexualism at schools – even in the sex education classes – this was the demand of the law. Now, gays have the right to marry. The society has changed, thus changed the laws. But debates carry on – more than 6 million Britons have signed a petition against gay marriage last year. And the parties of the right get more and more support. The search for the balance continues.

What I didn’t like in these discussions around the death of this young man – on one hand – wild and full-of-violence homophobia of some conservatives, and on the other hand – wild and crossing-all-accepted-boundaries anti-Azerbaijanianism of some liberals.

It is clear with the former – they are Neanderthals.

But with the latter, I have more demands to them. I am shocked by snobbism and arrogance of “tolerant liberals”. I have read some articles in mass media and comments on the social networks and I have no doubts that these “white people” hate their own people, their culture and heritage. Theirs is not a call to healthy debates, reforms, modernization, etc. Theirs is a pure orientalism – the inferior attitude toward the Eastern culture, Islamophobia and even racism toward majority of their own people.

And also – in the country, where rights of every social class and elements of society are violated, there is no reason on concentrating on the rights of this or that particular group. This selective approach is just cynical! I was surprised to see how many friends of mine who have never raised their voice in support of political prisoners, opposition or displaced residents of Baku – they have become “[freedom] fighters” and wrapped themselves in rainbow flags.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Article censored by Meydan TV: Arturo Desimone’s On Orientalism

The below piece, authored by Arturo Desimone, appeared on the Meydan TV website on 11 February 2014. The article was part of a discussion alleging that pro-democracy Azeri activists and writers were “orientalists”. The discussion was opened by Murad Gassanly, an Azerbaijani political exile who lives in the UK and is a member of UK’s Labour party. Gassanly accused Azeri activists and writers of being too pro-western and too Eurocentric. Meydan TV, an independent Azeri media channel based in Berlin was hosting the discussions.

A group of political émigrés based in the Western Europe and discussing whether pro-democracy activists are “orientalists” and excessive “pro-western” in a country that is the part of the Council of Europe, OSCE and the Eastern Partnership, with an Opera House in Baku and a democratic state with universal suffrage for both men and women established in 1918? Anyway, shit happens.

However, Arturo Desimone’s piece was removed just one day after it got published. Meydan TV said that there were statements in the article that need references and the author failed to provide them. Arturo Desimone, the author, learned about the whole affair from a discussion on a friend’s Facebook page (Arturo Desimone: The article has been removed?). Murad Gassanly claimed that Arturo Desimone didn’t exist and the article was written by a personal enemy, it contained personal attacks and damaged his reputation. Meydan TV also said that Murad Gassanly could sue them under the German law if the article is published.

Therefore, I decided to publish the aforementioned article in my blog. As a political statement that you shouldn’t try to suppress opinions that you don’t like. In the internet age, it is fruitless and the censorship has become obsolete. The shit happens.

Arturo Desimone

On Orientalism

In recent weeks the politically-engaged youth of Azerbaijan, both inside their country and in the diaspora of exiles and expatriates has been shaken up in polemics and debates. It started when a gay Azeri activist, İsa Şahmarlı, committed suicide. The tragedy of his death caused an outcry in Azerbaijan's dissident movement, exile networks and the wider society. A young UK politician from Azerbaijan, Murad Gassanly, who is in the British Labor Party, issued a statement that such concern for homophobia in his home-country is uncalled for.

The Labor campaigner leveled the charge of Orientalism at the activists in Azerbaijan. According to Gassanly, Azerbaijan’s being an Eastern country means it has an entirely different path and culture, one in which 'homophobia' can somehow be endemic. Gassanly's pronouncements on his country's ''different path'' is evocative of Third Way rhetoric which his party's former chairman Tony Blair introduced into Center-Liberal mainstream politics just before concretizing the alliance with the US in its 2003 Iraq War endeavor. Third Way rhetoric before Blairism had been more frequently invoked by more esoteric radical right groups around the globe.

If anything, the supposition that an Oriental country is innately ''culturally homophobic'' and finds natural expression of its non-Western identity through homophobic violence, the beating of women and other inferior behaviors, is an Orientalist conclusion. These seem echoes of the debates created within insular worlds of Western university departments, where it has long been argued that an exercise in overcoming Eurocentrism is to question rationality: many contemporary intellectual discourses that can be found within postmodernism and post-structuralism, innocently repeat the colonial fantasy that no country outside of Western Europe ever had a conservation, or a tradition of discussing rationality and reason within their culture.

An Oriental who is informed of both West and East, might know that Islamic, Indian and Far Eastern philosophy all have a highly valued place for the conception of rationality, and many centuries-old polemics as to what ''reason'' really means. In Islamic traditions of philosophy, reason and mystical revelation do not exclude each other (this is to be found in the works of Mollah Saddra, or the much earlier Ibn Sinna who wrote “Unified Theory of Prophecy;” or al-Farabi, who was from the Caucasus and whose medieval ideas on the state seemed to favor a kind of republic )

The progressive's idea that defending irrationality or deconstructing the importance of reason is a way of seeking alternatives to Eurocentric thought, has the very conservative implicit pre-supposition that rationality is Western, leading to the classically Orientalist belief, that only the Westerner is real and the West the only reality.

The political establishments in an East and in a South that have become alienated from themselves under the overwhelming domination of the world's leading societies have tried to find an essential identity in glib, disturbing patriotisms. One need not travel as far as Baku: In Italy, Berlusconi had marketed an anti-German patriotism, stressing the Italian self-image of warm families gathering to eat spaghetti and trusting one another, unlike the cold, stingy and individualistic Germans.

It is undeniable that Germany is conquering and humiliating the South and East of Europe by way of what the German economist and writer Ulrich Beck has argued is a fourth German attempt at imperialism, expressed by the seemingly non-violent means of economic expansion through debtocracy and structural violence. It is very arguable that, as Beck maintains, much of this new form of colonialism has to do with the German and Nordic culture of Protestant attitudes, strictness and contracts, and a sense of superiority to the countries of Southern and Eastern Europe (A sense superiority towards the rest of the world is a distinct part of the German culture to this day, though it does not fit conveniently into their discourses of postwar apologetics and PR.)

The reality of an emerging neocolonialism by Germany did not change the idiotic and manipulative nature of Berlusconi's patriotic propaganda which was a new front in his vast Pornocracia.

Germany's retro-imperialism, and the cultural prejudices of Germanic countries towards East and South are a reality experienced by many and an underlying force behind the policies of economic subjugation, which have been humorously called “Merkevelianism” even though they are more far reaching and of older origins than the superficial, though exemplary political personality of Merkel. This does not make innocent Berlusconi's attempt at a Southern cultural patriotism in awkward differentiation from the North of Europe.

Italy's own North is quite identical, culturally, to this image of cold and disciplinarian mercantile North, and has been an even more formidable oppressor of Italy's own South. Berlusconi's trickery might have helped create a fictitious unity by way of conservatism to only further justify the oppression of one class and ethnos of Italians towards another. Merkel has also used the rhetoric of a “third way” and under her presidency there has been a return to legitimacy within Germany of the pride of being German and having traditional values (of course, alongside a blossoming consumerism) The revival in traditional German attitudes probably has much to do with the public discourse for the ''disciplinerung'' of Greece, and their freedom to speak of Greece and its crisis in what are often ethnic terms.

Gassanli's defense of homophobia as inherent to Azerbaijan's popular culture and his calling Azerbaijan's dissidents ''Orientalists” seems a stunning, prodigious contribution to the mechanism of public relations that justifies Northern European alliances with Azerbaijan's treasured petroleum regime, as Azerbaijan under the Aliyev dictatorship is marketed as a rising ''financial miracle'' in the Middle East. Gassanli in his statements shows qualities that are valued within Blairism: tact for businessman-like explanations, politically correct sales talk and public relations. A previous article on Median by Keli Cosby that defended this policy, cited the work of Homi K Babha's far-from-original ideas on 'hybridity'', that being between cultures becomes a form of power and capital for the colonized as he knows various codes. In an era when more individuals act and emulate the behaviors of corporations and states, perhaps it is worth considering that corporations and states seek their own power in what postcolonials call “hybridity.”

There is definitely a hybridity today between right wing parties who are meeting each other, learning from and imitating one another across the ancient barriers that were constructed between Orient and Occident, North and South, religious and secularist. This is visible in how the Third Wayism of a Labor Party is seeking to overcome contradictions and recognizes the Third Wayism of the Aliyev regime in Azerbaijan. If global capitalism has any specific ideology, it would involve mostly an authoritarianism of the Market: that the Market's power and authority is not to be challenged or confronted, regardless of whether a country has democratic elections or a police state. In this aspect, neither the parliamentary democratic Labor Party in the UK nor the dictatorship of Aliyev in Azerbaijan is in any major way contradicting the essence of this business-power ideology. A politician graduated within the two cultures and systems might have a knowledge of the Western system as well as the internal weaknesses of both the culture of Azerbaijan and its promising young dissident movement. For Blairism, there is an obvious weakness in the dissident movement that includes recent exiles who has left the country because of threats.

The obvious weakness of the dissident movement that launched alternative education and activism projects, in the eyes of the majority of powerful political parties, would have to be their lack of Machiavellianism, and their lack of opportunism.

The dissident movement perhaps naively uses terms like ''Enlightenment'' and does not polish its language or its thought according to ruling conventions of politically correct wisdom. Real political drives can be sublimated by participating in the aggression of the mine-field of politically correct identity politics the West have offered as a way to absorb and destroy those who would chance to become real opponents of the ruling system. Had the dissidents known how to conform in the satisfactory manner, it would have indeed been a sign of the kind of opportunism sadly preponderant in many “progressive” discourses in Western centers of power and academic institutions that prepare future coordinators of a prevailingly conservative order in society.

The use of “Orientalism'' in this debate, and the fact that this accusation is called from Britain, presents an intelligent though unscrupulous weapon, a powerful propagandic tool which has been aptly named as ''the New Oriental'' by the philosopher and writer István Aranyosi, a resident of Turkey, in a recent article in Boston Review.

Aranyosi chose the specific example of the accusers against Richard Dawkins, who charged Dawkins' with being specifically an anti-Muslim racist rather than an all-round reactionary secularist pundit (he is obviously the latter). Aranyosi argued that “a significant part of what such bigotry usually involves—namely, viewing Muslims as a uniform, monolithic block, coupled with an attempt at racializing Islam—is more characteristic of Dawkins’s accusers.” The philosopher writes in a manner that strives and succeeds in echoing Edward Said more accurately than, for example, members of the Salafi pro-Saudi movement in the West who have begun to use Said as a new defense-mechanism by calling their critics “Orientalists” while they have achieved Salafism's normalization by aligning it with the current pro-business (therefore, pro-Western) Islamism.

It is today necessary to redefine Orientalism. To some extent the Orient has ceased to exist. The triumph of the West, of the liberal market values, of consumerism, the worship of mediocrity, the ambition to enter management: this is universally present from Iran, to Pakistan, from the former Soviet countries to ex-communist China. Organized Islam has ceased to be a religion, replaced by marketing by Saudi Arabia's new colonialism in the region. The more Islamism integrates into the Western economics and into the values of buyers, the more it pushes an oppressive morality in its schools and media and sets aside the great cultural legacy of Islamic art, literature and philosophy (all long forgotten by hipster Salafists who will angrily call out the ''Orientalists'' among their critics and enemies, and certainly forgotten by the unofficial functionaries of insular regimes calling ''patriotism'' and ''traditional values'')

The second Iraq war was a tragedy of immense proportions not only for its having devastated a country: Iraq of all the countries in the Arab world was then famous for its strong cultural life. Despite the state terror and abuses by Saddam Hussein, his regime was weak and nearing collapse; the population was educated and knew a secular life-style in which the culture was one of subversion. A popular saying, repeated by the singer and poet Kathem el Sahr, went that in the Arab world “books are written in Egypt, printed in Lebanon and read in Iraq'' (perhaps a slightly patriotic sentiment)

According to Said, Baghdad's subversive and vibrant secular counterculture had been the hope for a pro-democracy movement toppling a decadent regime in the Middle East. Baghdad was then the place in the Arab world literature, music and art as well as pro-democracy activist movements and discussion. This was of course before the second gulf war of 2003, which destroyed the hope of secular overthrow of the military Baathist dictator. Had it not been for the ''regime change'' perhaps the Arab rebellions of 2011 would have started in Iraq and not in Tunis, which after the ruination of Iraq was the last remaining more literate country in the Arabic-speaking parts of the world, a country perhaps lucky to have no oil or natural resources of interest to the West.

Said had advocated that the Middle East also had a strong secular culture; that, for example, religious conformity and doctrines were not essential to Arabness. It was the Orientalist maintained that to be Middle Eastern was to be a religious fanatic of some form, ''culturally patriarchal'', homophobic and so on. Another important consideration when discussing Orientalism, is to address the question of how much of what is considered ''traditional'' national culture of an Eastern country might have been recently constructed, or even developed under colonialism.

Today Orientalism has a new way of working, in that it employs the Oriental to perform Orientalism.

There are many sides to Edward Said's legacy that need criticism, his considerable myopia had consequences that resonate today in the identity politics that has created a generally repressive and unfree way of simplifying and controlling discussions inside the realm of the universities. A rigid set of ''progressive values'' which are really conservative, are presented as obvious, natural and unarguable. Identity politics has always existed, but gained a new form in recent decades, where an environment of anti-intellectualism is fostered and where it is seen as justifiable to refuse to read or take seriously the writers of recent centuries on account that they are merely ''dead white men.'' An Arab poet like Palestine's Mahmoud Darwish expressed profound appreciation for some dead white men such as Federico Garcia Lorca.

Today it is characteristic of academia to find a competitive appropriation and usage of identity politics to promote career or as a substitute for ideas. This insincerity and placebo politics has spilled over in the society outside the fortresses of learning, exemplified in the cunning PR of the British-Labor member from Azerbaijan who called dissidents ''Orientalists'' for wanting to challenge the traditionalist values in their society.


Statement by Meydan TV head Emin Milli

Meydan TV has removed yesterday an article written by Arturo Desimone. We found out that references made to Murad Gassanly in that article could not be backed by any quotes, articles, links that could protect Meydan TV in the court. Murad Gassanly claimed that he never said or wrote thoughts that were given in that article as his words/thoughts and asked us to remove that article unless we want to face legal action in the court.

I have contacted Nijat Garayev who sent me Arturos Desimone's article and asked him to provide us with proofs that those statements of Murad Gassanly really belong to him. Nijat Garayev could not find any proofs, so we decided not to run the article. [A part of the statement about one private person who engaged in online debates about the issue is removed by me.]

As a project operating under German legislation we can not publish anything that can be proved to be as groundless accusations damaging someone's reputation. We can not afford facing such legal action against us in the German court. We are standing behind our decision and believe that we have not done anything compromising our integrity or the claim to be free and alternative media platform in Azerbaijan and about Azerbaijan.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Azerbaijani court delivers the first criminal verdict on Internet defamation

Screenshot of AccessBank website
A district court in southern Azerbaijan convicted a former bank employee for criticizing a private bank on Facebook.

On May 2013, Azerbaijan criminalized online defamation and put strict punishment for libel on the Internet. This act was contrary to all recommendations, Azerbaijan’s international commitments and even against the National Action Plan for Human Rights signed by the President and envisaging the abolition of criminal defamation at all. It happened a few months after the Internet Governance Forum met in Baku with promises of the Azerbaijani government that “The Internet is free in Azerbaijan and will remain so”. The new amendments to the Criminal code can land you in jail up to three years for just two lines in Facebook. So much for the Internet freedom!

And it finally happened. Not in a Baku courtroom, in a highly publicized case against some political activists in front of numerous local and international observers, but instead, in a border town in an obscure backwater province. The Astara District Court in southern Azerbaijan convicted a former bank employee for criticizing a private bank on Facebook. Mikayil Talibov, former employee of AccessBank, a private bank operating in Azerbaijan has been sentenced to one year public labor, along with withholding 20% of his monthly revenue under notorious article 147.1 of the Criminal Code stipulating punishment for libel. The court also ordered Talibov to refute his statements on Facebook.

According to the Baku-based Media Rights Institute, Mikayil Talibov had previously worked at AccessBank Closed Stock Company and considered his dismissal to be illegal. He complained to relevant bodies and created a Facebook page “Accessbank-Haqsızbank” (“Accessbank- Unfair bank”) where he criticized activities of the bank:
The bank considered the page to contain libelous content and demanded the court to bring M.Talibov to justice for libel. The Astara Court investigated the claim in accordance with the texts the prosecutor submitted from Facebook. The court concluded the expressions in the texts to be of libelous character: “Accessbank-Haqsızbank” (“Accessbank- Unfair bank”), “Against Azerbaijan with money earned by Azerbaijanis”, “Accessbank contributes to political tension, makes people discontent with the government”, “Bank takes a kickback of 5.000 AZN for 50.000 AZN value deposit” and other similar expressions.
The irony is that the predator – AccessBank is formed by 100% foreign capital. Its shareholders are Black Sea Trade and Development Bank, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, International Finance Corporation, KfW - Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau, Access Microfinance Holding AG and LFS Financial Systems GmbH.

Further irony is the AccessBank motto – “Your Accessible European Bank”.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Is there freedom of the net in Azerbaijan?

Internet cafe in Baku (Photo:
It’s a tricky question. On one hand, I’m free to write and post this piece without circumventing any blocking on blogs or social media. On the other hand, I want to argue that there isn't freedom on the net In Azerbaijan.

However, the question remains vital – it’s the first that members of the world’s Internet crowd or international human rights officials and advocates pose to us – the Internet related people in Baku. And it’s usually after they pose the same question to government people or pro-government folks.

The response that government and its allies give is actually true – that the Internet is free in Azerbaijan, there is no filtering or blocking. But it is true in technical sense of the word. Yes, the Internet is free if you consider that almost no websites are being blocked and you can access even porn sites freely. But it is only one side of the medal, unfortunately.

Because freedom is more a social phenomenon rather than a technical phenomenon, thus the Internet is being technically free doesn't mean that the Internet is totally free in Azerbaijan.

I've devised a formula as an answer to this hard question – Yes, the Internet is technically free, there is no blocking, etc, but in reality there are many political and social obstacles that prevent that freedom from fulfillment. And besides, “the Internet is free” mantra hides more sinister reality – that TVs and print media and after all, political sphere and elections are not free.

One contemporary Azerbaijani philosopher, Niyazi Mehdi once said that the freedom in Azerbaijan was a privilege of the brave. It is also true about the Internet freedom.

What we have in our country is the situation when you exercise your freedom of speech on the net with your own risk. It’s as if you have some invisible terms of service you sign before opening the browser: “what you do in the Internet can land you in jail.” But it is not about disseminating child pornography or inciting racial and ethnic hatred – that can land you in jail in many countries of democratic world. Well, maybe US can protect your hate speech, but that’s a good exception.

What happens in Azerbaijan is that you can land in jail for criticism of the government you post on your Facebook page effectively behind a protective wall. If you are an activist, go and do whatever you want on Facebook. But beware that there might be harsh and inadequate consequences. Thus, you are allowed to exercise your freedom of speech on the net, but then you may be a victim of a selective harsh response from the government trying to control the Internet and cracking down on dissent.

The government has effectively put under strict control all avenues from media to universities. There’s no public space left, except for the Internet. Now, ahead of vital presidential elections this autumn, they try to bring under control the remaining one. But there are only two effective ways of controlling the Internet – either you go North Korea and pull off the plug or you should be as big as Iran or China to create your own isolated Internet segment. Azerbaijan is neither big nor wants to be North Korea. And thus, all efforts of the government are doomed to be futile. This is not my prediction; this is what the logic of modern communications says.

However, crackdown on dissent online still continues in full swing – there are still people in jail for their online activism. There are new amendments to criminal code that makes defamation online a criminal offence punishable with up to a three-year prison sentence. There was a critical blogger who committed suicide after the state, the society, the university and the family united to silence her.

So that innocent question that I posed in the beginning seems to be not so innocent at all. It’s a question that demands both yes and no simultaneously. It’s a complex question that I tried to answer. I hope I could.

For reference, look at this comprehensive report about the Internet in Azerbaijan – from legal aspects to technical issues. I contributed one chapter and a half.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

MP from ruling party proposes to shut down Western embassies in Azerbaijan

MP Elman Mammadov
Every single day Azeri officials should enlighten and entertain us with some witty comments, it seems. Their unofficial prerogative.

After one pro-government MP recently proposed to close down “Facebourg”, we thought we reached the limits of absurd, but now we were forced to doubt it again.

MP Elman Mammadov from ruling New Azerbaijan Party representing a Nagorno-Karabakh district in Azerbaijan’s rubber-stamp Parliament dropped another bomb today – he simply proposed to shut down OSCE, National Democratic Institute and Western embassies in Azerbaijan for “they regularly interfere into Azerbaijan’s internal affairs, organize riots, finance and instruct radical destructive forces.”

Elman Mammadov simply jumped into the bandwagon of a huge government-initiated campaign against independent youth groups that is ongoing in Azerbaijan these days. State controlled TVs and media, as well as top government officials are making fuss over alleged “Facebook revolution” that NDI was planning to make through different youth groups.

7 members of NIDA Civic Movement are currently in pre-trial detention for alleged possession of drugs, firearms and Molotov cocktails. The government and its allies claim that USA gave 2 million dollars to different youth groups, mainly NIDA to organize a revolution in Azerbaijan.

They really believe in this, no kidding.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

A SPECTRE is haunting the Philharmonic — the spectre of Facebook

Photo from Facebook
The news came first as a joke and then as a shock. 

The enlightened despot-director of the Azerbaijan State Philharmonic, a scion of a well-known Azerbaijani musical dynasty, the husband of Aysel Teymurzade, Azerbaijan’s Eurovision 2009 contestant and finally, a celebrated pianist Murad Adigozalzadeh punished several Philharmonic employees for their critical comments on Facebook.

Indeed. Yes, indeed.

The website that broke the news first is suspiciously down while I’m writing this post, but photos of Adigozelzade’s official decree were posted on the Internet yesterday and it’s an utmost shame, let me tell you.

According to the decree, some members of the State Choir posted critical remarks on their Facebook profiles about “the opening ceremony of the III International Mugam Festival dedicated to the 90th Anniversary of national leader Heydar Aliyev” instead of “disseminating the news of a high class opening ceremony on the social networks.”

As these actions are “contrary to the nature of culture workers and not accepted by the staff of the Philharmonic”, the director decrees to give “serious warning” to the manager of the Choir and its art director, as well as “last warning” and “grave reprimand” to five artists – which means the next step will be firing them from their jobs.

Moreover, the Director instructs the managers of all “creative collectives” of the Philharmonic to watch out for similar incidents and prevent leakage of opinion and talks onto the social networks that might be critical of “the Republic”.

Well, I just wanted to point out that the decree of the Director had already been leaked :)

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Human rights defender denied entry into Azerbaijan

Rebecca Vincent, a British-American human rights advocate and former coordinator for the International Partnership Group for Azerbaijan has been denied a visa to Azerbaijan, where her family was based. She was told by the government to shut up and stop advocating human rights issues related to Azerbaijan. 

Below is her appeal to friends and colleagues taken from her Facebook page:

Dear friends,

Many of you are aware that I am no longer living in Baku. This is because I am no longer welcome in Azerbaijan. I have essentially been kicked out of the country in connection with my human rights work, in particular my work with the new Art for Democracy campaign, which we launched in December right before this happened.

While the fact that I was targeted is not entirely surprising, the timing and the way the authorities did it caught me off-guard. A few days after I left the country to travel to the UK for Christmas, I was notified that my immigration clearance had been pulled. Not my son’s, not my husband’s, just mine – with no explanation given. This has meant that my now 20 month-old son and I have not been able to return to our home for nearly three months, and that our family has been separated since my husband returned to Baku for work two months ago.

In the interest of returning to Azerbaijan as soon as possible, I remained quiet as the US Embassy tried to reach a solution with the Azerbaijani authorities. I was eventually offered a deal – that I could return to the country if I stopped my activism. I reluctantly agreed, believing it was best to reunite my family and thinking I could find quiet ways of helping from within the country. But the deal later fell through due to an apparent difference of opinion among senior government officials. It seems that some did not believe I would really stop my activism and were concerned that I would still be involved behind the scenes, still meet up with my friends, etc. – which of course I would. Those were not the terms of our agreement and I would not be able to live under those conditions.

I don’t want to focus too much on my own case as in many regards I have gotten off lightly. Human rights work in an authoritarian country certainly carries some risks, and this is the first time in nearly seven years of working on human rights issues in Azerbaijan that I have been directly targeted. I am very lucky to not be in jail or have been attacked – a fate that many of my local friends and colleagues have experienced. But I am now going public to try to get more international attention to the dire human rights situation in the country – which has gotten markedly worse over the past three months. I will also be initiating legal action in the hopes of eventually getting justice at the European Court of Human Rights, and shedding light on the many other cases of violations of freedom of movement and right to respect for family and private life in Azerbaijan.

The hardest part for me has been the overwhelming feeling that everything is unfinished – my life in Baku, my work, and most of all, my friendships. The reason I continue to dedicate so much of my life to fighting for the protection of human rights and democratic development in Azerbaijan is because of the many amazing people who are struggling in circumstances much more difficult than my own to fight for their rights and make their voices heard. I am lucky to count so many of you as my friends and I will always cherish the time we were able to work together side-by-side in the country. You have touched my life more than you will ever know.

But I am confident that I will return one day to a freer Azerbaijan. I can already feel things beginning to change, as people are growing fed up of corruption and oppression. I think the authorities can feel it too, which is the reason for the particularly vicious ongoing crackdown. In the meantime, I will continue to help fight for that freedom in any way I can from abroad.

Yours always,