Four online activists arrested as wide-scale repression continues unabated

March 9th, 2014

Statement 

The Azerbaijani authorities must drop the charges against a number of online activists facing prison sentences merely for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression, Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS) said today. IRFS condemns this crackdown and urges the regime to release these activists and heed civil society calls for greater respect for fundamental freedoms.

A member of opposition youth movement, Turkel Alisoy, 22, said on Thursday he had been arrested (allegedly for disobeying police), the latest youth activist to be detained in a widening crackdown on political opposition.In a recent Facebook post referring to the students protest in the Baku State University, he criticized the president and his government.

It came weeks after three others were arrested in connection with their Facebook accountsthatare critical of the government.

Omar Mammadov, 19, a co-founder of the Axin (The Current) youth movement and an active member of the Civic Solidarity Party (VHP), went missing on January 24. Few days later, on January 27 his allies announced that Mammadov had been detained by plain-clothes police and charged with illegal drug possession (Article 234.4.3 of the Criminal Code: manufacturing, purchase, storage, transfer, transportation or selling drug in large amount with a view of illegal manufacturing and processing of narcotics or psychotropic substances).

Mammadov has been harshly criticizing and mocking Azerbaijani authorities on his Facebook page, called “Exclusives from AZTV” (NB: AzTV is the state television channel, engaged in 24/7 propaganda of the regime). Mammadov was sentenced to three months pre-trial detention. If convicted, Mammadov faces up to three years in jail.

Elvin Karimov had his computer and other ICT equipment confiscated and is now halfway through a three month pre-trial detention period. The arrest, carried out by the National Security Agency (MTN) officers as Karimov was walking home from work, comes because of “illegal drug possession” (Article 234.4.3 of the Criminal Code). Before he was officially charged, Karimov had been held incommunicado in the custody of the MTN.

It appears the real reason behind his arrest was the “Azad Soz” (Free Speech) Facebook page, which Karimov was running. With 11,000 likes, the page is well-known for its strong political satire.

Co-founder of the page in question, Tural Sadigli, currently in political exile, says he could not access the page since he last updated it on January 20. Sadigli believes the page is under control of the MTN. According to Sadigli, MTN people have threatened Karimov’s family and told them not to speak to the media. He said he had also received phone threats and told to “behave”.

Additionally, on November 22, 2013, police arrested Facebook activist Abdul Abilov, 31, and subsequently charged him with “illegal drug possession” under Article 234.4.3 of the Criminal Code. Shortly before his arrest, Abilov created two critical Facebook pages — “Election Fraud” and “Stop sycophants!”.

Observers reported police violations of arrest and detention procedures in Abilov’s case. Abilov himself reported ill-treatment while he was being held at the custody of the Department of Struggle Against Organized Crime under the Ministry of Interior, well-known for its harsh conditions. On 29 November 2013, Abilov’s appealed to the Azerbaijani public: “I expect help from every person with honor, principles and dignity. I am innocent. They set me up. Signed: Abilov Abdul”.

He is currently serving his 3 months pre-trial detention. If convicted, Abilov faces up to three years imprisonment.

In addition to traditional route to subdue dissent such as arrests and intimidation, Azerbaijani government is believed to have been aggressively developing software and technology in recent years to strengthen its surveillance on political activists, human rights workers and journalists.

A nonprofit research lab, Citizen Lab researchers say they have found evidence of the Remote Control System (RCS ) spyware being used in Azerbaijan. The Remote Control System (RCS), is a trojan that is sold exclusively by Milan-based Hacking Team to intelligence and law enforcement agencies worldwide. The RCS is capable of stealing documents from hard drives, snooping on video chats, reading e-mails, snatching contact lists, and remotely flipping on cameras and microphones so that they can quietly spy on a computer’s unwitting user.

Citizen Lab researchers identified an RCS endpoint in Azerbaijan (Azertelekom: 109.235.193.83) that was active between June and November 2013, which was important period in the country’s political life—in relation to the October presidential election.

The stage for this crackdown was set on 16 May 2013, with the adoption of a law which severely restricts the right to freedom of expression on the internet, criminalizing online speech. The law is a flagrant breach of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), as well as the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), both of which Azerbaijan is a party to. IRFS regards the law as a blatant attempt to clamp down on the only remaining space for Azerbaijanis to freely express themselves in a country where traditional media have been reduced to silence via legal means and intimidation.

This crackdown cannot be ignored. International organizations – Council of Europe in particular– must act decisively to condemn human rights abuses and demonstrate their strong support for individuals who exercise their rights to freedom of opinion and expression–whether by running a Facebook group critical of the government, posting eyewitness video of wrong-doings, reporting on electoral fraud, or challenging the state policy.