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Azerbaijan

ALIYEV’s AUTHORITARIANISM GOES DIGITAL

The Azeri Times

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This article was originally published by Open Democracy

Last week, somebody broke into Meydan TV’s Facebook. By Monday, the Berlin-based online news platform finally restored its access to the page — but had lost years of posts and nearly 100,000 subscribers (the publication had experienced a series of DDoS attacks on its site earlier in January). Anybody who knows the parlous state of freedom of speech in Azerbaijan knows of Meydan TV. The site’s independent journalism has won it no friends in the South Caucasus state, where its journalists are routinely harassed.

In recent weeks, reports have abounded of DDoS attacks and hacking of Facebook and email accounts of Azerbaijani dissidents and their supporters. Both of us can attest from personal experience that the attackers have upped their game — using surveillance technologies such as Deep Packet Inspection (DIP) and spearphishing attempts. As we enter 2018 and a presidential (re)election in October, these moves attest to a digital crackdown in Azerbaijan – policing the internet and deterring online activism.

The block doctrine

One development at the end of last year showed a new stage of regime mobilisation against online dissent. A legal amendment last year allowed Azerbaijan’s state institutions to block websites on the grounds of national security — and MeydanTV’s was among them.

Furious, five blocked media outlets contested the ruling. During an appeals hearing on 19 December 2017, a representative from the Ministry of Communication (the government body that carried out the blocking) said the websites were blocked not at his ministry’s orders, but by the prosecutor’s office.

Bakhtiyar Mammadov, who testified on behalf of the ministry, declared Meydan TV, Radio Azadliq (RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani service), and the independent Azadliq newspaper (unrelated to Azadliq Radio), Turan TV, and Azerbaijan Hour were to be the first on the list of websites to be blocked following the amendments. “We received a letter from the prosecutor’s office telling us to take immediate measures against these websites,” said Mammadov.

While Mammadov urged the judge to dismiss the lawyers’ appeal to unblock the websites, he argued that blocking only boosted their readership, and that dedicated users can still find ways to access them. At the end of the day, the court in Baku ruled against unblocking the online news outlets.

Hacking away at the opposition

With the right know-how, getting around a block isn’t too difficult — you can use a VPN or a mirrored website. Too bad that the authorities are eager to target those who’d want to do so.

In a recent interview, a dissident activist from Azerbaijan told us of two types of politically-motivated hacking that the regime uses today. Firstly, there’s hacking of Armenian websites (Azerbaijan technically remains at war with its western neighbour over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh), secondly, there’s the hacking of civil society activists’ email and social media accounts. In the case of civil society activists, a hacker picks his target, acquires access to just one account and once in, has access to emails and contacts of everyone else in the contact list.

Hacking Facebook accounts isn’t too difficult, as most accounts are linked to a phone number and therefore a mobile network operator. In a country where these firms are under the watchful eye of the authorities, requesting a password via mobile device to reset the password is simple. With one SMS, the hacker gets hold of the account and the damage is done.

Recent examples include the hacking of Facebook profiles and pages of political figures Ali Karimli and Jamil Hasanli. As former presidential candidate Hasanli put it, the damage inflicted was extensive. He lost 75,000 of his 108,350 subscribers, as well as all the posts, photos, videos, and articles he’d shared since 2013.

This wasn’t the first time Hasanli has been hacked, but he believes the hackers have now raised the stakes. “My accounts were hacked one year ago, around the time of a [opposition] political rally, but I was able to quickly regain access to my account,” he recalls. This time, says Hasanli, the hacker got back into his pages several times before finally being shut out. He believes this was more than an ordinary hacker attack, and suspects that updated technology was used.

The possibility of new technology is something for forensic specialists to establish. But to any observer, it seems clear that the authorities have stepped up their internet policing measures ahead of elections in October, and are ready to deploy all kinds of tricks to keep dissident voices muted offline and online.

Visitors to Meydan TV saw an error message during the attack
Visitors to Meydan TV saw an error message during the attack.

Denial of service, denial of dissent

In this March 2017 report, the secure hosting service VirtualRoad analysed the types and frequency of DDoS attacks in Azerbaijan. A DDoS or Distributed Denial of Service attack is an attempt to make an online service (often a bank or news website) unavailable, by overwhelming it with traffic from multiple sources.

VirtualRoad states that all DDoS attacks observed between October 2016 and March 2017 originated from dedicated servers operated by Azerbaijani system administrators, which made VirtualRoad conclude that the attackers were close to the country’s cybersecurity community. VirtualRoad also discovered botnet attacks against the small independent news website abzas.net and azadliq.info before these websites were blocked.

The DDoS attacks Meydan TV experienced in January of this year, however, point to new revelations. MeydanTV’s website managers tracked the sources of the DDoS attacks and discovered that this time they were carried out from from India, Vietnam, Romania, Brazil, and Indonesia. And this time, defending the website was much harder.

As a result, Meydan TV’s mirror website was disabled in the first DDoS attack of this style. Not even the site’s Cloudflare service (which provides DDoS protection and firewall) were enough to keep the website secure. As the attacks continued over several days, it was difficult for the news outlet to continue the work as usual.

In addition to DDoS attacks, Azerbaijani activists have been subject to other forms of intimidation and surveillance including Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) — also known as information extraction, which in normal circumstances is used for innocuous reasons, but in the wrong hands can be used for surveillance, and snooping over personal content, spear phishing, and the creation of impersonating accounts.

In 2014, Citizen Lab revealed Azerbaijan was among the customers of Hacking Team, from which the country’s Ministry of Internal Affairs had bought Remote Control Spyware (RCS) technology. In research published last March, Amnesty International concluded that spearphishing and other forms of attacks against Azerbaijani dissidents began in November 2015, the year when Azerbaijan had its parliamentary elections — and when the regime woke up to what was happening online.

The calm before the fraud?

With presidential elections scheduled for 17 October, Azerbaijan’s political arena is going to be on lockdown. The elected president will stay in power for the next seven years based on the 29 amendments voted through via a country-wide referendum two years ago.

The new president will also have a range of powers, including dismissing parliament and calling for early presidential elections. The current head of state, president Ilham Aliyev, took power in 2003, secured a second presidential term in 2008 and in 2009 scrapped presidential term limits all together — this allowed him to run and successfully win the presidential elections in 2013. Following the 2016 referendum, Aliyev appointed his wife Mehriban Aliyeva to the position of the country’s First Vice President, a seat in the government also made possible by the 2016 referendum.

The country’s electoral history is marred by vote rigging and ballot stuffing, to name a few. Elections are held in an unequal environment where activists, dissidents and civil society representatives were and are harassed, intimidated and silenced. Aliyev has won every single presidential election with an over 80% majority since taking the seat from his father, the late Heydar Aliyev, and Yeni Azerbaijan, the ruling party, has managed to win majority in all parliamentary elections since the Aliyev family took over the presidency.

According to Jamil Hasanli, the political, social and economic environment established in Azerbaijan is an unequal playing field. The opposition does not have access to television (which remains a key point of news access among wider population); civil society has been silenced; independent media is blocked and so is the opposition media; while critical voices have been either arrested or forced out of the country. “In this environment, the only place remaining for influencing public opinion is Facebook,” notes Hasanli. And so it is not surprising that the authorities are using various methods against online dissidence to take the remaining free space. Scores of Azerbaijani citizens have been questioned for posting critical commentary on Facebook, or simply liking a social media status, or clicking “attend” for political rallies. There are currently four bloggers who are serving a prison term. Even diplomats have paid a heavy price for voicing their concerns on social media.

A number of political figures and experts interviewed for this story commented that attacks on the internet usually take place during certain political events, elections, rallies and protests. And given this year is too an election year it is not totally surprising to see more online activity taking place and new targets selected. Now that much of Azerbaijan’s civil society is out of the picture, the goal is to render the opposition totally harmless. This includes hacking of political leaders’ Facebook pages and their accounts, as well as pressure against prominent dissident bloggers, using their families as baits.

Two prominent cases involve video bloggers Ordukhan Teymurkhan and Mammad Mirza, both of whom live abroad. In February 2017, some 12 members of Ordukhan’s family members were detained, questioned and asked to demand the Netherlands-based Teymurkhan stop his activism in an exchange for their freedom. While in January this year, Mirza’s father was briefly detained and then released in an exchange for his brother-in-law. The family has denounced Mirza while the blogger is refusing to stop any of his work. Mirza in an interview with Meydan TV said he has no intention of stopping and plans to attend a rally in Strasbourg in February to speak of the threats against his family.

While Mirza and Ordukhan are committed to their cause, so are Azerbaijani trolls who are committed to the jobs they have been given. Anecdotal evidence suggests some of these fierce online commentators are civil servants, pro-government journalists and members of the ruling party branch. Often their comments are copy paste or excerpts from statements made by the President and other government officials. Their ability to engage in a healthy debate online is weak say political activists often subject to their harassment. There are users with assigned user accounts, but there are also users that operate more than one account disguised under different names.

While Azerbaijan is certainly far from Russia’s troll factories, it is catching up.

About the authors

Arzu Geybulla is a freelance writer originally from Azerbaijan currently based in Istanbul. She reports on human rights violations in Azerbaijan.

Hebib Muntezir is an Azerbaijani blogger and social media manager of Meydan TV. He is the author of the popular Azeri-language satirical blog Tin Söhbəti.`1

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Azerbaijan

The US Calls Azeri Government to free All Individuals Imprisoned for Exercising Their Fundamental Freedoms

The Azeri Times

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The US welcomes the release of the opposition politician Ilgar Mammadov from imprisonment in Azerbaijan and calls on the authorities to remove accusations from him, as well as to release all other persons arrested for the implementation of fundamental freedoms.

This was stated by the Department of State spokeswoman Heather Nauert.

“The United States welcomes the decision of the Azerbaijani Court of Appeal to release Republican Alternative Party Chairman Ilgar Mammadov, whose conviction and imprisonment for over five years raised serious concerns about the rule of law in Azerbaijan. We call on the government to drop the charges against him, in keeping with its international obligations and the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights.

We urge the Azerbaijani authorities to release all other individuals who have been imprisoned for exercising their fundamental freedoms,” Nauert said in the statement published on the website of the US Department of State.

According to local human rights defenders, there are at least 150 political prisoners in Azerbaijan.

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Azerbaijan

The true price of Azerbaijani cotton

The Azeri Times

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The fall in oil prices during the last few years has forced the government of Azerbaijan to seek alternative revenue sources. Baku placed its bets on cotton, without heeding the consequences – human rights violations, rising costs of agricultural produce and even the threat of boycotts by major buyers. After the mass poisoning of cotton workers this summer, Meydan TV reporters started to wonder: what is the price this country has to pay for growing cotton?

Criminal proceedings after poisoning allegations

“We all started to have bad stomachaches, then foam came out of our mouths. We got scared and left the field. Those who were not affected took us to a hospital,” recalls Gulnara Gardashova.

The 33-year old is one of the Azerbaijani cotton workers who was poisoned while working on the fields this summer. There are said to be hundreds of people like her, though the government is concealing the actual scale of what is happening.

On 10 July, 25 other people were poisoned along with Gulnara, working on cotton fields in the village of Simada in the southwestern Saatli district.

“Before we started working, the farmer told us that he had sprayed the soil with a chemical two weeks earlier, and that it was safe to resume work after two days. But it seems that the effect of the chemical lingered.”

Gulnara and the others affected were taken to the local hospital. She said their condition was taken seriously, which is why they were sent to the Clinical Medical Center in Baku.

When talking to reporters, Azer Magsudov, head of the clinic’s Toxicology Department, confirmed that those affected were feeling “lightheaded and sick” but rejected the suggestion that this was due to poisoning. He did not specify what caused the symptoms. Similarly, doctors in other hospitals who treated the patients with the same symptoms told journalists that the cause was excessive exposure to the sun, not poisoning due to pesticides.

The Azerbaijani Prosecutor General’s Office has launched criminal proceedings into negligence by officials and potential violations of procedures in combatting plant diseases and pests. On 10 August, the Prosecutor-General’s Office said it had completed a preliminary investigation in the criminal case regarding 10 people – agronomists, heads of centers for the protection of plants, and other officials. All of them have been charged with violating occupational health and safety rules, and their cases have been passed on to courts in Saatli, Imishli and Tartar districts.

Scale of poisonings remains unclear

There is no official information about the number of people affected. Media reports and eyewitness testimonies suggest that there have been at least 400 cases this summer alone. Among the victims are children, who often help their parents on the fields. In Saatli, a Meydan TV correspondent saw three teenage girls weeding a cotton field.

So far, the poisonings occurred in four districts: Imishli, Saatli, Tartar and Yevlakh.

In June, around 80 cotton workers were poisoned working on fields in the Imishli district. Since the official narrative of sunstroke had not yet been established, the head of the local hospital, Eynulla Gasimov, shared his assessment freely:

“In Soviet times, people used to get poisoned by pesticides. Such incidents still happen today, and this is one of them.”

The main buyers and distributors of pesticides are agro-industrial unions. Since they are controlled by the government, it is difficult for journalists to obtain information about the specific types of pesticides used on the fields.

In a recent investigative report, Ifact.ge published pictures of chemical containers found on Saatli cotton fields. They contained Rifle 48 EC, which contains the herbicide Trifluralin. The EU banned it ten years ago, but it is still permitted in some countries – including the United States and Turkey – provided that workers spraying it wear protective clothing.

Контейнеры от химикатов, найденных на хлопковых полях Саатлинского района Фото-ifact.ge

Other pictures show empty chemical containers scattered around fields in Imishli. The labels indicate that the farmers used domestic pesticides made by the Azerbaijani Gilan Holding.

An OCCRP investigation recently revealed a link between Gilan Holding and the daughters of the Azerbaijani president, Arzu and Leyla Aliyeva, who are its main shareholders.

Agrarian expert Vahid Maharramov believes that it will the source of the pesticides will remain a mystery.

“Those guilty of what happened are so powerful that law-enforcement agencies are not in a position to deal with them.”

Fotolar ifact.ge saytına məxsusdur

The area of land on which Gulnara Gardashova and 25 other cotton workers were poisoned belongs to farmer Latif Khalidov.

Farmers used to buy pesticides for their fields without knowing about potential health and safety risks.

“We are ordinary people. We do not know what kind of chemical this is, if it is safe or not, we were not warned when we bought it. We saw that it did not have any effect on the weeds after we sprayed it, so we decided to clear the field of weeds manually. We hired some workers, and this is the result.”

After the first mass poisonings, cotton workers started to be more careful. Workers told reporters in Saatli that now, they ask if a pesticide has been sprayed, and if so, they refuse to enter the field.

“Farmers sow cotton out of fear of losing their land”

Lawyer Khalid Bagirov believes that violations of labor rights are particularly common in the agricultural sector: “People do not have labor agreements and they never have insurance. A person who spends the entire day weeding cotton fields under the baking sun makes eight to ten manat (four to five euros).”

But not all cotton workers are paid. In the past few years, employees of public-sector organisations and students had to work on cotton farms without getting paid. Economist Natig Jafarli says that the state not only forces citizens to work on fields for free (which is illegal) but also urges farmers to sow cotton:

“As a result of the land reforms, land in Azerbaijan has long become private property. However, in 2016, as a result of the referendum and under the pretext of efficient land use, the state imposed restrictions on the right of ownership. Executive authorities abuse these changes to legislation and make farmers sow certain products. Most farmers sow cotton out of fear of losing their land.”

Economist Togrul Mashalli believes that the government’s interventions in cotton-growing decreases the industry’s output and profitability. In 2017, the per hectare output actually decreased compared to the previous year, falling from 1,730 tons o 1,510 tons, despite all the efforts.

“When the executive authorities are forcing the farmers to sow cotton, the farmers either do not know how to increase their output, or what kind of pesticides they should use. Consequently, they fail to produce quality output, and they don’t make a decent profit either.”

Natig Jafarli does not believe that profit is the government’s main goal. “They view cotton-growing as a social project. Their aim is to create a lot of jobs, even if those jobs are paying low salaries, because they want to reduce social tension in the regions.”

In Azerbaijan, the official unemployment rate is just 5%, but analysts dispute those numbers. They say that the very methods used to calculate it do not conform to international standards, and therefore do not reflect reality.

For many Azerbaijanis living in the regions, the economic situation leaves no other choice. Most of the cotton workers who were poisoned have now returned to the fields. Some say they are still unwell but must work to provide for their children. One of the women, Hagigat Mammadova, says that after she was poisoned, her arm went numb and she is now unable to weed.

“Now I do not have an income, and nor do I have money to continue my treatment,” she complained.

A threat of boycott?

During the Soviet years, Azerbaijan successfully grew cotton. The industry declined in the 1990s, but recently underwent a renewal. Three years ago, the government indicated that cotton could become an alternative to energy after the decline in oil prices and declared cotton a strategic industry. Last year, the president issued a decree saying that output should grow to 500,000 tons a year by 2020.

The key buyers of Azerbaijani cotton are Turkey and Russia. Exports are growing: in 2016, the country exported 89,400 tons of cotton worth 24 million dollars and 207,000 tons worth 52 million dollars in 2017.

For cotton to grow, land is needed, and the numerous cotton plantations in Azerbaijan have already caused a noticeable reduction in pastures.

Хлопкоробы на поле, Саатлинский район, Июнь 2018. Фото:Мейдан ТВ
Хлопкоробы на поле, Саатлинский район, Июнь 2018. Фото:Мейдан ТВ.

Agrarian specialist Vahid Mahharamov estimates that a total of 50,000 hectares of pastures are being used as cotton fields, while the import of animal products into the country has tripled in the past two years. This has caused prices of staple products like meat, milk, herbs and melons to shoot up; people are paying three times as much as they used to.

Cotton Campaign coordinator Kirill Boychenko has described how the cotton industry works in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan:

“In Uzbekistan, the government sets quotas for the production of cotton. Farmers who do not own land but lease it from the government are obliged to grow and sell cotton for low prices that do not match actual market costs. Each year the government forces students, teachers, medical workers and other public and private sector employees to collect cotton, and makes farmers fulfill the output norms. If they refuse, they are punished. In Turkmenistan, the situation is even more difficult. In addition to forcing adults, they are also relying on children. According to international conventions and recommendations, cotton-growing is a poisonous activity, and child labor is not acceptable.”

Cotton Campaign was established in 2005 to eliminate forced child labor in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. According to Boychenko, about 300 companies including major world clothing brands have already refused to buy cotton from these countries because of child labor. Starting in 2018, the United States banned cotton imports from Turkmenistan.

“I really hope that Azerbaijan will not go along the same path”, concludes Kirill.

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Azerbaijan

Boss sues cleaning lady for her interview with Meydan TV

The Azeri Times

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The chairman of the Gazakh District Utilities Services is suing an employee for 10,000 manats ($5,900) for claims that she made in an interview with Meydan TV.

On 26 July, Meydan TV published an interview with Royala Azimova, a cleaning lady at the utilities service in the Azerbaijani region of Gazakh. Azimova claimed that the organization’s chairman, Arif Heydarov, did not distribute the bank cards with which employees in Azerbaijan normally receive their salaries. According to Azimova, Heydarov kept the cards and withdrew all the salaries himself, keeping the lion’s share. Azimova said that she received 52 manats ($30) per month out of her official monthly salary of 122 manats ($72).

Azimova told Meydan TV that just before losing her job she confronted her boss. “This time, when the boss called me in and gave me half my salary, I said that I want my full salary. I’ve got three kids at home and my husband is disabled and can’t work. How long will I sweep the streets while you take my salary? He said that that’s the rule here, and if you don’t like it you’re welcome to leave.”

Now Heydarov is suing Azimova at the Gazakh District Court for 10,000 manats (($5,900) in damages for libel and insults to his dignity. In the lawsuit, Arif Heydarov denies Azimova’s allegations that he stole money from his employees’ salaries. “On 26 July I was told that Royala Azimova had had an article published about me on the Meydan TV website, the Qazaxlilar Facebook page, and Xalqxəbər.az,” the document reads. “I purportedly took her salary from her, gave her 52 manats and kept the rest. All employees, including Royala Azimova, received their salaries from Kapital Bank using their plastic cards. People who posted comments on those libelous and insulting articles used indecent and insulting phrases about me.”

The regional executive authorities declined to comment on the lawsuit, stating that the court will have the final word.

Royala Azimova’s husband, Mirjafar Huseynzadeh, told Meydan TV that he recently had a run-in with his wife’s former boss. “Using obscenities, [Heydarov] insulted me for our complaints to the press about him, and the two people who were with him came at me and grabbed one of my ears each and pulled,” Huseynzadeh says. “Arif Heydarov said that if I complained to anyone again, he would have my ears cut off.”

Huseynzadeh is disabled and unable to work. “We have three ill children, and my wife started working so our family could somehow meet its demands,” he told Meydan TV. “My pension is 165 manats ($97), and it’s not enough to support the family or to buy medicines. Arif Heydarov has no idea about our situation… If the court satisfies his suit, we’ll renounce our citizenship and go to embassies to seek asylum. An official demanding 10,000 manats from a hungry family that lives an intolerable life is the greatest disgrace.”

The Gazakh District Court will hold a hearing on Arif Heydarov’s suit against his former employee on 3 September.

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