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Azerbaijan: white gold, black labour

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After the global decline in oil prices, Azerbaijan is trying to differentiate its economy betting on cotton industry. In Soviet times the “white gold” was one of the biggest exports of Azerbaijan, today is caracterized by huge violations of workers’ rights

28/08/2018 –  Arzu Geybullayeva

On August 21st, 2018, a regional court in Imisli ruled to release three men under house arrest. All three had been arrested following the mass poisoning of some 200 workers harvesting cotton in the regions of Tartar, Saatli, and Imisli. In total, ten officials were arrested and a criminal investigation was launched by the Grave Crimes Investigation Department of the General Prosecutor Office. Two of the arrested were employees of MKT Production Commercial and CTC Agrp, two companies dominating Azerbaijan’s cotton industry. So far, regional courts have ruled to release six out of ten suspects under house arrest.

Cotton spree

On September 17th, 2016, president Ilham Aliyev visited  Azerbaijan’s once cotton region, Sabirabad. There, he talked about the country’s progress since his election in 2003 and all the work the government has done to achieve regional development across the country. He explained the decline in cotton production as one of the direct outcomes of the market economy and lack of interest in developing the country’s agriculture. This is where the state decided to intervene, he explained. “It was […] decided that since the vast majority of issues related to food production and food security has been resolved […] the state should provide more support for agricultural development and have greater involvement in this area”. The support, explained the president, would help farmers “resolve their problems” while restoring “traditional industries”, which were in recession. A year after president Ilham Aliyev delivered his speech in Sabirabad, a new state programme was signed  on July 13th, 2017, to increase the production to 500,000 tons by 2022.

Pundits believe  , however, that the sudden interest in reviving agricultural infrastructure and in particular cotton industry was not at all related to the authorities’ goodwill and strategic thinking, but to an economic recession at the time. In 2014, Azerbaijan was hit by the global decline in oil prices. The traditionally popular oil industry, that made up 90% of Azerbaijan’s exports, plummeted, and the government was desperate to find other sources of income  .

The cotton industry, often referred to as “white gold”, was one of the biggest exports of Soviet Azerbaijan. In 1981, Azerbaijan produced 831,000  tons of cotton and by 1997 the country made 124 million dollars from cotton exports. But lack of interest in further agricultural development policies, quickly aging technology, and growing indifference with the crop as a result of the lower margins, soon depleted the industry. By 2017, exports had dropped to 24.2 million dollars, while production stood at 207,000  tons according to data by the Azerbaijan State Statistics Committee.

Expired herbicides, poisoned workers, no accountability

On June 10th, 24 workers were reportedly hospitalised in Saatli region. On June 16th, another 14 workers were hospitalised in Tartar region. Four days later, there was another case of workers poisoned. And on June 21st, some 100 workers were taken to a hospital in Imisli region. According to witnesses and other workers the numbers were higher  , but were deliberately lowered by the local officials. Doctors  too said this was not a case of poisoning, but rather a consequence of excessive exposure to the sun. There is still no information on the exact numbers of hospitalised workers, nor on the causes.

A recent investigation by Ifact Georgia, however, tells a different story. There is evidence that Trifluralin, a popular herbicide, was used in Saatli fields. The herbicide should only be handled using special clothing. But workers who were brought to the field in Saatli in June wore little protective clothing – long sleeves, some gloves, and scarves to cover their faces. According to the investigation and the interviews, they had not been informed that the fields were sprayed with herbicides. The same investigation also found out that the pesticide used in Imisli was made in Azerbaijan and produced by Gilan Holding, a company that, as revealed by a recent OCCRP investigation, had links to the two daughters of Ilham Aliyev. The containers found in the fields had March 2012 as an expiration date.

 

The human cost of an ill-assessed government policy

Meeting the goals set forth by the state programme  on cotton growing comes with the cost of a number of violations the regional administration is willing to close its eyes on. Violations of labour rights, underpaid workers, and monopoly over the industry leave workers desperate. Many of those hospitalised returned to work shortly, saying they needed the money  . Workers also often have no contracts or insurance  and make close to nothing, on average 8 to 10 manats (4-10 Euros) per day. There is also forced and unpaid labor. Agriculture expert Vahid Maharramov says  that government institutions are given certain quotas to fill and that is why there have been reports of teachers, students, doctors, and other civil servants sowing the fields in the last two years. One official  at the Ministry of Agriculture acknowledged that state employees and students were sent to pick cotton, however denying any responsibility.

The state programme  for cotton development claims that subsidies in the amount of 0.1 manat for each kilogram of delivered cotton serve as an incentive, but pundits disagree. Maharramov believes  these subsidies make very little difference for farmers, especially when farmers are selling cotton at a set price, which is below market value.

There is another immediate damage on the economy that few officials will talk about. Cotton took up some 50,000 hectares of land that were normally used for breeding. As a result, import of animal products has tripled in the past two years, and so have prices.

While reviving agriculture, and especially the once highly profitable cotton industry, could be good for the country’s economy and employment, such an approach – that lacks a system of checks and balances, transparency, and violates workers’ rights – is all too common for Azerbaijani authorities. An easy solution, unfit infrastructure, and high expectations – all at the cost of human labour and health.

Azerbaijan

Laza, the land of waterfalls – Photo Gallery

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Originally published by Caucasian Knot

The Azerbaijani village of Laza, about 200 km from the capital, Baku, is situated on a high-altitude plateau, Shah Yaylag. At the end of March when the snow starts to melt, tourists flock to Laza to see the waterfalls for which the area is famous. The locals, who are mostly ethnic Lezgins, earn a living by renting out cottages to tourists and offering visitors transportation in all-terrain vehicles in the winter.

Azeri Times presents this photo essay from Laza by Aziz Karimov, republished from Caucasian Knot.

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Opposition activist sentenced to 6 years in Azerbaijan

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On 18 September, the Baku Court for Serious Crimes sentenced a member of the youth committee of the opposition Popular Front of Azerbaijan Party (PFAP), Orkhan Bakhishli, to six years in prison.

Bakhishli was detained by men in plain clothes in downtown Baku on the evening of 7 May. On 10 May, the Yasamal District Court in Baku charged the youth activist with drug possession and ordered his detention for four months.

The PFAP has claimed that the charges against Bakhishli are trumped up and politically motivated. Several days before his arrest, on 3 May at a World Press Freedom Day event at the grave of journalist Elmar Huseynov, who was shot and killed in 2005, Bakhishli accused the Azerbaijani government of Huseynov’s murder.

Human rights activists consider Bakhishli a political prisoner. Previously, he served 30 days of administrative detention after being arrested ahead of a 31 March opposition rally.

In recent years, activists Ahsan Nuruzadeh, Murad Adilov, Bayram Mammadov, Giyas Ibrahimov, Elgiz Gahramanov, blogger Rashad Ramazanov and others have also been jailed on charges of drug possession.

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Azerbaijan a year after the LGBT raids: has anything changed in Europe’s most homophobic country?

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Azerbaijani society has never been tolerant toward sexual minorities, but no one expected the cruel and large-scale violence that occurred last year. At least a hundred people were humiliated, beaten and raped. People who were suspected of being gay were blackmailed and warned not to walk in the central streets of Baku. Meydan TV investigated the possible reasons for the police violence immediately after it happened last year and we now return to this topic to find out what has changed in Azerbaijan over the past year.

I felt like I had done something terrible

“I was absolutely desperate. I was leading a repulsive life: I drank a lot, I used drugs,” Ali recalls September 2017 (all names have been changed). He says that the “repulsive” life he led seemed to help him forget what he had experienced for a while: like many other gay Azeris, Ali was detained in a surprise raid in downtown Baku. He spent several days at a police station. It still is not easy for him to talk about what he experienced – in response to every questions he says that many people, for example, transgender people, had an even harder time than he did. “Not only did they call them the filthiest words and beat them, they also shaved their heads, which was the most humiliating thing for them,” Ali says.

Ali had never advertised his sexuality but it became obvious for people around him after police detained him. “I felt like I had done something terrible and that I was persecuted for it. My landlord kicked me out of the apartment I was renting, and my friends and loved ones turned away from me,” Ali recalls.

Ali gradually did manage to return to normal life – there were kind people who helped him while he was looking for a job. Unlike Ali, another gay man who was detained, Murad, had a certain amount of money which helped him flee the country. Murad left immediately after he was released from the police station and now lives in Turkey: “I wanted to move to Norway, but I was denied a visa.”

Murad has not been successful in finding a job and it seems he will have to go back home soon. “Of course I’m afraid, of course I don’t want to go back. I’d stay here if I could. At least there’s an LGBT community in Turkey, and they help each other,” Murad says.

 

Four brave lawyers

According to official statistics, police detained 83 people during the LGBT raids in Baku in September 2017.

“Thirty-three people filed lawsuits for illegal arrest and cruel treatment after they were released,” said Gulnara Mehdiyeva, a representative of the human rights organization Minority Azerbaijan and a member of the local LGBT alliance Nefes (Breath). Gulnara says that apart from physical and moral damages, those detained also incurred material damages:

“They were jailed for different terms, some for 10 or 15 days and some for 20 or 30 days. Many lost their jobs because their employers refused to take them back after their long absence,” Gulnara Mehdiyeva says.

Four lawyers agreed to defend the rights of the LGBT people affected. One of them, Samad Rahimli, says that judges rejected all the complaints. The same 33 people sent complaints to prosecution agencies, but prosecution agencies did not find any criminal wrongdoing.

Azerbaijani rights activist Kamala Aghazadeh believes that lawsuits will not produce results while the country has no law defending LGBT people from discrimination. “Society absolutely needs a law that would guarantee the protection of LGBT rights,” she said. Perhaps, the adoption of such a law would remove Azerbaijan from the list of the most homophobic European countries which Azerbaijan has led for four consecutive years now.

A month after the raids, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks sent a letter to Azerbaijan’s Interior Minister in which he called for “thorough investigations into serious allegations of human rights violations of LGBT persons recently arrested and detained in Baku”.
No reaction followed from the Azerbaijani government.

 

Four suicides and five murders

Samad Ismayilov, the director of Minority Azerbaijan magazine, said that four LGBT people committed suicide in Azerbaijan in 2017. Ismayilov said that specialized organizations recorded five murders which presumably were anti-LGBT hate crimes over the year. He said those were average annual figures.

“However, these are only cases that we have managed to learn about. In reality, there are many more crimes of this kind,” he said. According to Ismayilov, activists were not able to find out even an approximate number of members of the LGBT community in Azerbaijan because most people hid their sexual orientation.

Samad said no raids or large-scale assaults on gays had been recorded in Azerbaijan in 2018, but several trans people were at the police station the other day. “They were summoned to the police, asked several questions and released. However, we do not understand the reason for this interest, nor did we understand it last year,” Samad said.


Produced with the support of the Russian Language News Exchange

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