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AZERBAIJAN GOES TO THE POLLS AMID MUZZLED MEDIA AND BLOCKED WEBSITES

The Azeri Times

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When it comes to silencing critics, Azerbaijani authorities have been industrious and methodical. Ahead of snap presidential elections scheduled for April 11, potential opposition candidates have been either jailed or barred from running, and the political landscape has been cleansed of virtually all formal avenues of expressing dissent.

Throwing journalists in jail, abducting them from abroad, accusing them of financial misdeeds, blocking websites, hacking social media accounts, imposing travel bans: this is not an exhaustive list of the tactics Ilham Aliyev’s government has used to try to ensure the independent media are muzzled and critical voices silenced.

Azerbaijan ranks among the worst jailers of journalists in the world, with at least 10 behind bars on December 1, 2017, when CPJ conducted its annual prison census. But international pressure on Baku has had some impact.

Mehman Aliyev, who heads Turan, the last independent news agency in Azerbaijan, told CPJ he thinks that pressure from the U.S. and international outcry over his arrest in August on tax evasion charges played a key role in his release.

Senator Richard Durbin introduced an amendment to the FY2018 State Department and Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill which instructed the State Department to bar Azerbaijani officials from entering the U.S. if they were involved in Aliyev’s wrongful imprisonment.

Speaking to CPJ from Baku, Aliyev (no relation to the country’s president) said, “Senator Durbin’s amendment as well as pressure from other senators, including Marco Rubio, John McCain and Patrick Leahy, were directly responsible for my release.”

Aliyev added, “The amendment was passed on September 7. I had a court hearing the following day. When the authorities heard of the amendment, the security services told me President Aliyev had just heard about my case and was concerned.”

His early release on September 11–and that of Kanal 13 manager Aziz Orujov, who according to reports was freed on April 5 after the Supreme Court handed down a suspended sentence–are the first releases since May 2016 when prominent investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova and several others were set free after international advocacy efforts, including by CPJ.

Although Turan continues to operate, Aliyev said that its staff of 15, including seven Baku-based reporters, are too few to cover the country of nearly 10 million.

“The situation is very difficult,” Aliyev said. “We are the only ones left. They haven’t destroyed us yet because the amendment is still there.”

Many of the country’s journalists choose to live and broadcast from abroad to avoid arrest or harassment, but Azerbaijan authorities have tried to silence independent voices beyond its borders.

In May 2017, prominent investigative journalist Afgan Mukhtarli disappeared in Tbilisi, Georgia, where he was living in exile with his family. He emerged two days later in a border detention center in Azerbaijan. On January 12, a Balakan district court sentenced Mukhtarli to six years in prison on charges of illegally crossing the border, bringing contraband with him, and resisting authorities, according to CPJ research. Reports in early April said the journalist’s health is deteriorating. Mukhtarli’s appeal against the sentence has been postponed repeatedly in a move that some activists said they believe is to ensure the hearing is not held until after the election.

Previously a safe haven for many of Azerbaijan’s opposition members and independent journalists, neighboring Georgia had started to feel dangerous as rumors spread about Georgian law enforcement allegedly collaborating with their Azerbaijani counterparts in Mukhtarli’s case. Officials in Tbilisi said they would investigate the journalist’s case, but as of early April no further updates have been made public. Mukhtarli’s wife, Leyla Mustafayeva, also a freelance journalist, said in an interview with the Rory Peck Trust in February that “press freedom in our country steps backwards and further backwards each year.” Fearing for her safety, Mustafayeva said she had to seek refuge in Germany.

“No place feels safe anymore,” said Fikret Huseynli, head of the Amsterdam bureau of opposition-leaning online television channel Turan TV (a separate organization from the Turan news agency). Huseynli, who has lived in the Netherlands since 2008 and has citizenship there, covers the activities of the Azerbaijani opposition in exile and suspected corruption in the Azerbaijani government. He has also been critical of the president.

Huseynli told CPJ that his perception of safety beyond Azerbaijan’s borders changed after he visited Ukraine in October 2017 to explore opportunities for opening a Turan TV bureau in Kiev. Huseynli was about to board a plane when Ukrainian border service detained him “while Azeri-speaking men were watching,” he said. He was released on bail on October 27 but Ukraine’s prosecutor general’s office confiscated his passport. Then, on March 5–two hours after Huseynli spoke with CPJ–unknown men attacked the journalist in the Kiev apartment he was renting.

On April 2, a judge ruled against extraditing the journalist and said he should be allowed to move freely. However, earlier that day a Kiev prosecutor took Huseynli’s passport from a court secretary and has refused to hand it back, according to reports. Huseynli is due to appear before a Kiev court again on April 12–one day after Azerbaijan’s election.

The Azerbaijani government also tried to file a criminal defamation complaintagainst two French journalists after one of them called Azerbaijan a “dictatorship” in a broadcast. A French court rejected the defamation complaint in November, according to reports.

Critical journalists who remain active inside the country face daily restrictions. Since her release from prison nearly two years ago, Ismayilova has had her bank accounts frozen and her electricity and internet connections cut when she tries to participate in international conferences or accept prizes via Skype, according to media reports and her social media posts. Ismayilova’s appeals to lift her travel ban were denied, and authorities prevented her from traveling to Turkey to see her mother before she died in early March.

When contacted by CPJ for comment about conditions for the press Mushfig Aleskerli, deputy chairman of Azerbaijan’s Press Council, asked for questions to be sent via email, but as of April 5 the self-regulatory media authority known for its pro-government stance, had not responded to the emailed questions.

The government sometimes offers a “carrot” approach to the press, including a program the president launched in 2013 to give free apartments to journalists. The program has been criticized by observers and journalists as an attempt to buy loyalty.

Aliyev from the Turan news agency, told CPJ he has been approached to nominate reporters for free apartments but repeatedly refuses to do so. He said being given an apartment is the equivalent to being handed a bribe and goes against professional ethics. Aliyev added that there are no economic incentives for new independent media outlets to spring up in Azerbaijan.

“The authorities created an environment in which no media outlet can survive without government subsidies. If there is any media start-up that hopes to float without government funding, solely on advertising, it will either die out on its own or the government will strangle it,” he said.

With the election just a few days away, Alex Raufoglu, a Washington, D.C.-based Azerbaijani journalist who contributes to Turan, told CPJ more pressure should be put on Baku.

“The international community should not only continue putting strong pressure on Aliyev’s regime but step it up ahead of the elections, because once re-elected for another seven-year term–and I see no obstacles to that– Aliyev will listen to his foreign partners even less,” Raufoglu said.


Corruption

UK aims at shady Azerbaijani money – but is it missing the target?

The Azeri Times

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Some have expressed concern that the UK’s first use of the “unexplained wealth order” targeted someone already out of favor with the Azerbaijani government.

The announcement that the wife of an Azerbaijani banker is the first target of British efforts to crack down on foreigners’ illicit wealth was welcomed by good government advocates, but raised concerns that London may only be aiming at figures who are out of favor with their home governments.

On October 10, British media reported that the target of Britain’s first “unexplained wealth order” is Zamira Hajiyeva, the wife of Jahangir Hajiyev, the former head of the International Bank of Azerbaijan. The order is a recently introduced instrument allowing British law enforcement officers to demand explanations when a person’s wealth does not correspond to their declared income. It is aimed at cracking down on the vast amounts of ill-gotten wealth – much of it from the former Soviet Union – parked in London.

There is no shortage of dodgy Azerbaijani money in the UK. The investigation into the “Azerbaijani Laundromat,” for example, found that shell companies based in the UK played a key role in the Azerbaijani political elites’ money-laundering and influence-buying operations.

The Hajiyevs, meanwhile, had already been cast out of the Baku political elite: In 2015, Hajiyev was sentenced by an Azerbaijani court to 15 years in prison for misuse of funds.

The government-friendly Azerbaijani press – not typically a fan of stories about Azerbaijanis falling afoul of investigators in the West – widely reported the news about Hajiyeva. “All of England is talking about Zamira Hajiyeva,” crowed a headline on Haqqin.az, a news site connected to Azerbaijan’s security forces.

Two days before the news broke in the UK, in fact, Haqqin had already reported that Hajiyeva was the target of the order. The story cited the Telegram channel Banksta – a Russian-language channel covering banking affairs – but a sister website of Haqqin, Azeri Daily, had named Hajiyev as early as July.

That Hajiyeva was targeted, out of the many potential subjects of the order, raised some consternation among observers.

“There is an interesting issue with the case of Zamira Hajiyeva,” tweeted Anar Mammadli, an Azerbaijani human rights activist. “After all, she and her husband, Jahangir Hajiyev, are not the first Azerbaijani civil servants to buy property in London. Will the other official-families’ ‘contributions’ to the British economy be investigated? After all, they are not alone!”

“What a can of worms,” tweeted John Heathershaw, a professor at the University of Exeter who studies post-Soviet financial ties with the West. “Many thousands more potential cases. Or are we just going to look at those who have fallen out of favour with their home governments?”
“What a can of worms,” tweeted John Heathershaw, a professor at the University of Exeter who studies post-Soviet financial ties with the West. “Many thousands more potential cases. Or are we just going to look at those who have fallen out of favour with their home governments?”

“Hajiyev and his wife have already fallen foul of the system in Azerbaijan. I don’t imagine the Azerbaijani regime will be overly concerned to see this investigation. Who knows, maybe they even had a hand in triggering the investigation,” tweeted analyst Alex Nice.

“My take on the UWO is that it looks like a missed chance to send a big message,” tweeted Oliver Bullough, a journalist who has extensively covered post-Soviet wealth in the UK. “Jahangir Hajiyev had already been jailed in Azerbaijan so why not use the standard asset recovery route, as with Gulnara Karimova? UWOs are supposed to be for assets that can’t be seized otherwise.”

Nevertheless, the move was welcomed by good government advocates. “UWOs should now be used more widely to pursue more of the £4.4 billion worth of suspicious wealth we have identified across the UK,” Duncan Hames, director of policy at Transparency International UK, told the BBC.

And some in the region wondered if their oligarchs would be next. “It seems that investigators from the National Crime Agency started from the letter ‘A,’” joked Uzbekistani writer Hamid Ismailov on twitter. “Uzbek ‘nouveau riches’ might think that they are last in the running order:) in between Uganda and Zambia.”

Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet, and author of The Bug Pit.

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Politics

Political émigré who returned home to visit critically ill father arrested on fraudulent drug-related charges

The Azeri Times

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Azad Hasanov, Musavat party member and political exile living in Lithuania, has been arrested during a short return to his home country and charged with drug trafficking.

According to his lawyer, Osman Kazimov, the Khatai District Court sentenced him to four months in detention on drug-related charges. Under Article 234.4.3 (illegal manufacturing, purchase, storage, transportation, transfer or selling of sale of drugs), Hasanov faces between five and twelve years in prison.

On 11 October, Musavat deputy chairman Sakhavat Soltanli reported that Hasanov had disappeared and was likely arrested. He has been a member of the Surakhany Musavat branch since 2003 and had relocated to Lithuania in 2014, where he was granted political asylum.

He returned to Baku on 10 October, upon learning that his seriously ill father was about to die.

According to his spouse, Tarana Hasanova, he did not have any problems flying into Baku airport: “His father has been seriously ill and is about to die. He arrived on 10 October during the night. He did not have any problems crossing the border and stayed with his father until noon. He later went to the Mosque to pray. That’s where people in civilian clothes stopped him and forced him into a car. When his brother tried to help him, they pushed him aside and told him they are from the police.”

Hasanov’s fate recalls the case of lawyer Emin Aslan who was forced into a car by people in civilian clothes a few days after returning from his studies in the US. He later was found to be held at the Office for Combating Organized Crime, and spent 30 days in detention for failing to obey a police officer’s orders.

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Society

European film festival in Baku: a Dutch cat, a Hungarian horse and a ‘faceless’ French artist

The Azeri Times

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The 9th European Film Festival has officially begun in Baku.

The event is organised by the European Union in Azerbaijan and will end on 21 October, until which time the public is invited to view 19 European films free of charge.

Here are some of the films we recommend:

The documentary film Wild Amsterdam, accompanied by director Mark Verkerk and producer Ignas van Schaick, will be screened at the festival. The film centres around the animals of Amsterdam, but not in a way you might expect: the story is told from the perspective of a cat, who shows us how squirrels, pigeons and waterfowl live in Amsterdam’s canals and parks.

The directors say that the consultation with ecologists and other specialists took half a year by itself. The film is a viewing wonder, dynamic and modern. For example, one scene depicts the retrieval of bicycles from the bottom of the canal with the help of special machinery. The scene looks as if it has been cut right out of a thriller because of how it traumatises the crabs living on the bottom.

The film Kincsem – Bet on Revenge is from Hungary, and also concerns the fate of an animal – a racehorse who belongs to a broke aristocrat forced to earn money through racing. However, the film is not about horseracing, but rather about competition between members of high-class society in the Austrian Empire. The film’s action revolves around the young aristocrat who becomes involved in a dispute with an Austrian officer, whose daughter later falls for the main character.

Barbara, a film by Christian Petzold, is a drama shot in 2012 which takes viewers back to 1980 when Germany was still divided by the Berlin Wall. The main heroine of the film lives in the German Democratic Republic and dreams of leaving. Forced to work in the country and under constant surveillance, she methodically prepares her plan to escape. At first it seems everything will work out and that nobody can prevent her from leaving, including the all-powerful Stasi. However, an inconvenient and unexpected attachment to one of her colleagues jeopardises her escape.

Latvian film Dream Team 1935 by Aigars Grauba was also shot in 2012 and also offers an excursion into the past – to the pre-war period of 1935 when the first European Basketball Championship took place in Geneva. Participation in the championship was a great chance for national teams to go down in sports history. The Latvian team seizes the opportunity, though young trainer Baumanis soon comes to understand that it is far more important to overcome oneself than one’s enemy…

Halima’s Path is the work of Croatian director Arsen Anton Ostoyich, and is dedicated to one of the bloodiest wars of the second half of the 20th century – the war in former Yugoslavia. The action takes place in the post-war years in Bosnia. A woman by the name of Halima who lost her husband and son (though not biological) dreams of finding their remains in order to give them a proper burial. She is only able to do this with the help of DNA analysis. While she is able to find her husband’s remains, she finds it difficult to do so in the case of her son. Halima must then go through some hardship to find the biological mother of her son in order to find him.

The French film See You Up There is also devoted to war and its consequences. This time, the action takes place during World War I. The story begins in the final days of the war, when two young soldiers – an artist from a wealthy family, Edouard, and a former bank employee, Albert – are forced to go to their certain deaths on the orders of a malicious captain. Edouard, whose face has been disfigured, saves Albert, which firmly binds the two friends together: now Edouard is an ‘invisible’ artist, and Albert his impresario.

In addition to film screenings, the festival includes workshops and discussions with European directors.

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