By Mina Muradova (08/07/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
After 17 days of competition, the first European Games have ended in Baku. Yet the crackdown on dissenting voices continues in Azerbaijan. The country will be remembered not only for its capable hosting of a major sporting event, but also for its silencing of critical voices in connection with the event.
Azerbaijan’s government hailed the games as a triumph and is now considering bidding for the Olympics. “The first European Games will go down in sporting history,” the Minister of Youth and Sport Azad Rahimov said in a statement on July 3. “I’m very proud of what has been achieved in Baku and the positive feedback we have been getting … It has been a success for Azerbaijan and will be a launch pad for future sporting events we will host. The coverage ... and the positive messages we have sent have really highlighted Azerbaijan on the world and European map.”
Next year, Azerbaijan will host the 42nd Chess Olympiad and a Formula One race through the streets of Baku. It will also stage the Islamic Solidarity Games in 2017 and soccer matches in the Euro 2020 competition.
According to Rahimov, “There is a new culture growing, this is very important, of supporting the development of sport … Every ticket sold is an important contribution to sustain and maintain our sporting arenas and develop our athletes in different sports.” Azerbaijan, enjoying loud support at every venue, has surprised many and was second in the medal table with 18 golds. Nearly 6,000 athletes from 50 countries competed in 20 sporting events at the Games that ended on June 28.
However, Azerbaijan was widely criticized before and during the games for politically motivated arrests and for banning the Guardian, along with a number of media outlets and human rights activists, from entering the country to cover the games.
Two days after the closing ceremony in the Baku Olympic Stadium, seating 68,000, the prominent human rights activist and director of Meydan TV Emin Milli posted that “It is remarkable that the government has started repressions against Meydan TV the day after the European Games’ closing ceremony. Several journalists from Meydan TV have been banned from leaving Azerbaijan, stopped at the border and were not allowed to come for a short trip to Tbilisi, Georgia. … from past cases, we may conclude that there is now a criminal case opened and an investigation going on against Meydan TV.”
On June 26, Milli reported that he had received a threat from Minister Rahimov, in connection with his critical reporting on the European Games. Meydan TV is a Berlin-based online television station that provides alternative news coverage of Azerbaijan. During the European Games, Meydan TV’s materials were widely used by international media, including critical cartoons, stories on an Azerbaijani bus driver who crashed into three Austrian swimmers and an interview by a national television station of a fake British tourist – both of which were highly embarrassing to the ruling regime.
International human rights watchdog organizations expressed their concerns over “an increase in the government harassment of independent journalists” in Azerbaijan in the wake of the European Games. “We fear that this growing harassment is a forerunner of a new crackdown targeting Meydan TV’s staff,” said Johann Bihr, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
Azerbaijan is ranked 162nd out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. There are currently about 100 political detainees, at least 20 of whom are identified as “prisoners of conscience” by Amnesty International.
Sport for Rights calls on the Azerbaijani authorities to put an end to their ongoing attempts to silence critical reporting, and to take immediate steps to improve fundamental freedoms in the country, including by releasing all the journalists and human rights defenders currently behind bars for political reasons.
The campaign further calls on the European Olympic Committees to speak out, publicly condemning the threat against Milli, as well as the broader human rights crackdown taking place in the country. Finally, Sport for Rights calls on German authorities to provide Milli with immediate and full protection.
By Natalia Konarzewska (06/24/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev made a last-minute decision not to attend the European Union’s May 21–22 Eastern Partnership (EaP) summit in Riga, citing the need to focus on the upcoming European Olympic Games, which were about to start in Baku. However, high-ranking officials quoted in the media asserted that president Aliyev did not attend the summit due to Western criticism towards Azerbaijan. Baku also expressed dissatisfaction with the summit’s results as Azerbaijan hoped to receive more vocal Western support for the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Instead, attention was focused on human rights violations in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan’s relationship with the EU is becoming increasingly strained and displays growing disappointment from both sides.
PAKISTAN AND AFGHANISTAN-INDIA COOPERATION, by Sudha Ramachandran
TURKEY, ARMENIA, AND THE POLITICS OF GENOCIDE RECOGNITION, by Emil Souleimanov
KAZAKHSTAN TO REFORM ITS CULTURAL SECTOR, by Rafis Abazov and Andrey Khazbulatov
WILL TURKISH STREAM COMPETE WITH THE SOUTHERN GAS CORRIDOR?, by Natalia Konarzewska
REPUBLICANS STRENGTHEN POSITION IN RESHUFFLED GEORGIAN GOVERNMENT, by Eka Janashia
KYRGYZSTAN TO HOLD ANOTHER CONSTITUTIONAL REFERENDUM, by Arslan Sabyrbekov
PRESIDENT SARGSYAN AND COUNTERPARTS COMMEMORATE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE, by Erik Davtyan
AZERBAIJAN CRACKS DOWN ON ACTIVISTS AHEAD OF EUROPEAN GAMES, by Mina Muradova
By Mina Muradova (06/10/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
An internal investigation in Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry has erupted in a scandal over the comments of a diplomat who publicly criticized the government after a deadly fire in a Baku apartment-building.
In early June, President Ilham Aliyev recalled Azerbaijan’s Ambassador to Ukraine and Permanent Representative to the GUAM Organization for Democracy and Economic Development Eynulla Madatli. Although no official explanation was given, local media reported that it was connected to his “like” of a status posted by another diplomat, Arif Mammadov, on his personal Facebook page.
Mammadov, Head of the Permanent Observer Mission of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to the European Union, sharply criticized Azerbaijani officials over the May fire that killed 15 people in the Binagadi district of Baku. “There is no nation that would stand that shame and injustice,” Mammadov wrote on his Facebook page in May. “Officials earn millions on our people’s sufferings, and if they are not afraid of our people’s anger, then they must be scared of God's anger!” Four of the 16 residents who died were young children. Fifty others were injured, and most were later said to be in serious condition.
The government swiftly set up a commission to investigate the tragedy, and President Aliyev chaired its first meeting on May 20. Deputy Prime Minister Abid Sharifov, appointed to head the commission, said residents of the apartment block would be given temporary accommodation and 20,000 manats (US$ 19,500) per household in compensation, while families who lost members would get another 15,000 manats each. Sharifov indicated that building and safety standards had not been observed, and Prosecutor General Zakir Qaralov pointed to the exterior plastic cladding, saying it had not been certified.
“The preliminary theory is that the facing materials used in the repairs were of poor quality and non-fireproof. I have repeatedly raised the issue of repairs carried out in Baku: first of all, repairs must be carried out with good quality and hazardous substances must not be used, Aliyev said. “Representatives of relevant government agencies have repeatedly told me that all the materials used are of good quality and fireproof. But the incident has shown that this information is false.” These materials have been used in Baku for many years, but no previous incidents have occurred. The minister for emergencies, Kamaleddin Heydarov, clarified that a certificate submitted to the state anti-fire service had confirmed that this material is resistant to fire.
The city’s mass rebuilding has been spurred by the oil and gas boom of recent years. Heydarov noted that over 260 building exteriors are covered with similar material and that all of them were being controlled. The cladding, made of a plastic called Styrofoam, was only put on recently, apparently to decorate Baku and other cities ahead of the European Games, which Azerbaijan is hosting on June 12-28.
The horrific event sparked extensive expressions of grief on social media, fueled by amateur videos of the fire and photos of victims, including one widely-circulated shot of two-year-old Farah Maharramova celebrating her birthday days before her death.
In some Baku districts, city authorities ordered workers to remove the panels from aging buildings. Elsewhere, private residents used hammers and sometimes their fingers to chop off chunks of the material surrounding their apartment windows and ground-floor walls. A notice on Facebook invited 24,000 Azerbaijanis to participate in removing the new facades: “It’s stupid to put up with this in silence. We have to act … We have dismantle this idiotic facing ... Life is worth fighting for.”
Mammadov’s post was considered a call to “revolution” against the government. Some pro-governmental media outlets termed it a “mutiny” within Azerbaijan’s diplomatic corps. In a June 3 article, Haqqin.az described Mammadov as a “traitor” and “a new opposition activist.”
Hikmat Hajiyev, a spokesperson for Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry said, “We were informed about it. The Foreign Ministry will thoroughly investigate the issue in accordance with its internal procedures. Such behavior from the diplomat, if confirmed, would be inappropriate and far from ethic norms. It would be irresponsible and unprofessional behavior that is unacceptable.” As a result of the internal investigation, a number of the Foreign Ministry’s employees have been dismissed.
In response, Mammadov commented on his Facebook page on June 7 that the government had started “the hunt against the best diplomats of the country … The repression order came from the repressive factory of the country. It is beyond understanding that the country’s best diplomats are fired for ‘liking’ on Facebook my words expressing condolences to the families of those killed during the tragic fire in Baku … Diplomats are forced to write derogatory statements. I would say that the actions taking place now can only be called insanity of the power.”
Mammadov refused an offer from Belgium’s Foreign Ministry to protect him and his family. “Several media have reported that I am looking for political asylum in Norway. No way! My determination to fight obscurantism and injustice against my great nation is limitless,” Mammadov stated.
By Mina Muradova (05/13/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
The Olympic torch has been lit in Azerbaijan and started a journey through 60 cities and regions of the country. In one month, Azerbaijan will host the inaugural European Games, a sort of continental Olympics that convene 6,000 athletes from more than 50 member countries of the European Olympic Committees (EOC).
The government’s preparations include 18 competition venues, including a US$ 500 million Baku Olympic Stadium, development of city infrastructure and an unprecedented crackdown on political dissent.
On May 12, Index on Censorship and a number of other organizations signed a joint letter to Lord Sebastian Coe of the British Olympic Association, to highlight violations against freedom of expression and threats to human rights defenders in Azerbaijan ahead of the European Games.
“On behalf of the Sport for Rights coalition, we are writing to bring your attention to the unprecedented and mounting crackdown in Azerbaijan, which has resulted in dozens of political arrests, including prominent journalists, human rights defenders, and political activists … In the run-up to the European Games, which will take place in Baku on June 12-28, we ask you to publicly support the Azerbaijani people and the rights to free expression, association, and other fundamental freedoms,” the letter says.
The authors of the letter asked Coe to publicly condemn the clampdown, calling for the release of Azerbaijan’s political prisoners: “In making such a statement, you would send a signal to Azerbaijani civil society that they are not alone in their struggle for fundamental freedoms.”
Last summer, a group of Azerbaijani human rights activists launched the Sport for Rights campaign. The campaign has a simple objective: to draw attention to the human rights situation in Azerbaijan in the context of the European Games. As indicated in hundreds of credible reports by media outlets, NGOs and governments, the Azerbaijani government has deployed a wide range of means to repress this initiative.
Observers say that since Baku was awarded the games in 2012, targeted political repression has increased drastically. In April, Rasul Jafarov, an activist and organizer of the Sports for Rights campaign, was sentenced to six and a half years in prison. He was sentenced for illegal business activities, evading taxes, and abuse of power. But it is widely believed that these charges are false, and that his real “crime” was monitoring and reporting on criminal cases against journalists and his successful awareness campaigns highlighting violations of freedom of expression, assembly, and association in Azerbaijan. His “Sing for Democracy” and “Arts for Democracy” campaigns drew attention to Azerbaijan’s poor human rights record, and his planned “Sport for Rights” campaign would have done the same in the run up to the European Games.
A few days after Jafarov’s conviction, the same court sentenced Intigam Aliyev, a leading human rights lawyer who has filed hundreds of cases with the European Court of Human Rights, to seven and a half years behind bars, again on bogus charges. Both had been detained since August 2014.
In early May, Faraj Karimov, a well-known social media activist and leading member of the opposition Musavat party, was handed a six-and-a half year sentence by a Baku court. He was arrested in July 2014 and accused of possessing illegal narcotics. So was his brother Siraj – also a Musavat member – who was given a six-year jail term this March.
Karimov was the administrator of ISTEFA (Resign), which was the largest Azerbaijani-language page on Facebook with 300,000 subscribers before it was closed down in July 2013. He then created a page called BASTA, which has 155,000 subscribers, and was also administrator of the Musavat party’s website.
He declined to address the court at the end of his trial, saying, “I have been arrested for my struggle against an authoritarian regime. If I spoke at a trial that flouts the law, it would be of great benefit to those who ordered my arrest.”
Amnesty International, which has designated both Karimov brothers as prisoners of conscience, said last year that when Faraj was arrested, he was questioned about Facebook, not drugs.
In order to promote the Games, their organizers launched a campaign in social media by hijacking the official hashtag of the European Games, #HelloBaku. In March, the organizers announced a competition for the most creative photo – the winner would get tickets to the games’ opening ceremony, and was announced in early May.
But as Index on Censorship later wrote, the contest backfired with “a number of social media users instead using #HelloBaku to highlight Azerbaijan’s poor record on human rights. One such video was posted by Dinara Yunus, the daughter of Leyla and Arif Yunus who are imprisoned since last summer. She asked President Aliyev “What are you scared Mr. President? Why do you choose repression over freedom?”
According to the initiators of the Sport for Rights coalition, “In the run-up to the European Games, we believe that public condemnation of the crackdown by [international] bodies could help achieve tangible, democratic change at this crucial time.”
The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.