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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

Demonstration in support of Azerbaijani blogger on hunger strike in prison: fines and arrests

The Azeri Times

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Four demonstrators have been sentenced to three weeks in prison on charges of organising unauthorised gatherings. The demonstrators recently protested the launch of a new criminal case against well-known Azerbaijani blogger Mehman Huseynov.

Among the arrestees are two journalists and two members of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (PFPA).

Another four participants were fined 300 to 400 manats (approximately 177 to 236 dollars).

Huseynov has gone on a hunger strike in protest against new charges of “attacking a prison guard” that are being levied against him.

The demonstration

Several dozen journalists and activists gathered on 3 January near the Neftchiler metro station on the outskirts of Baku, shouting “Freedom for Mehman!” and “Freedom for political prisoners!”.

Five minutes later the police stopped the rally and detained 15 people.

Seven women were released at the police station, and the rest were taken to the Nizami District Court. Three other women were released there, and five men were left in custody until a court decision was made.

On 4 January the court sentenced journalist Afgan Sadigov to 22 days in prison, while journalist Nurlan Qahramanov and PFPA members Elmkhan Agayev and Sakhavat Nabiyev were sentenced to 21 days in prison.

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Hunger strike

Mehman Huseynov is an Azerbaijani video blogger who has actively criticised the wealth and corruption of certain officials.

In early 2017 he was detained by the police. After his release, Huseynov complained that the head of the police station had tortured him. He was again arrested and received two years in prison on charges of defamation.

Local journalists, opposition activists and human rights advocates have spoken out in his defence, considering him a victim of political repression.

On 26 December 2018, with just a few months of his prison term remaining, Huseynov was accused of attacking a prison officer. A new criminal case has now been filed against him. In response, the blogger has gone on hunger strike.

The Caucasian Knot writes that on 30 December his condition worsened, and at the insistence of his brother, agreed to drink water.

The head of the public relations department of the Prison Service, Mehman Sadiqov, stated that Huseynov was not on a hunger strike and that he had no health problems.

Huseynov’s father tried to meet with him in the detention facility, but was refused access. His lawyers are also unaware of his current condition.

Mehman Huseynov has received outspoken support from Reporters Without Borders.

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Azerbaijan

Imprisoned Azerbaijani political blogger on hunger strike

The Azeri Times

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A prominent Azerbaijani political blogger and activist is on a hunger strike after the authorities brought new charges against him shortly before he was to be released from a two-year prison term.

Mehman Huseynov, once Azerbaijan’s most popular political blogger, was sentenced to two years in prison in March 2017 on charges that he defamed police officers who allegedly tortured him. He had been scheduled to be released in March 2019 but on December 26, prison authorities brought new charges against him.    

Huseynov allegedly did not cooperate with an inspection in prison and attacked a guard, Lieutenant Ali Abdalov, according to a statement from the state prison service. “He physically resisted and injured Abdalov,” as well as “scattered and broke” items in an office in the prison, the statement said. The prison service also claimed that Huseynov had 461 manats (about $270) in his possession, which is against prison regulations. The new charges carry a potential prison term of up to seven years.   

The day after the new charges were brought, Huseynov, 26, stopped eating and drinking, his family reported.

This is the third time in the last year that the Azerbaijani authorities have imposed new charges on a detained political activist, thus prolonging their terms. Similar punishments were meted out to a religious activist, Telman Shiraliyev, and a senior member of the opposition Popular Front Party, Mammad Ibrahim.

“The government’s repunishments are the result of their understanding that they will never control [Huseynov] by imprisonment,” said Jamil Hasanli, an Azerbaijani historian and political activist, in a Facebook post. “The government does not want to forgive this young blogger for exposing their corruption.”

“We were expecting this kind of provocation against Mehman. He was warned that he would not be released in March,” his brother, Emin Huseynov – also a political activist, living in exile in Switzerland – told the news agency Turan. “The charges are nonsense. Who believes someone can beat prison officer while being under arrest?”

Emin Huseynov said that his brother was being punished for statements he made at his mother’s funeral in August: “Breaking me down is possible only with death. Today I have lost my mother. If they release me alive from jail, I will double my activities.”

Emin Huseynov said that Mehman started drinking water again after four days at the insistence of his family, though he continues to refuse food. His family and fellow activists say his health has dramatically deteriorated.

“Mehman Huseynov is in danger of dying and we hold the Azerbaijani authorities responsible for his fate,” press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders said in a December 31 statement.

Prison authorities have claimed that Huseynov is not in fact on a hunger strike. “Mehman Huseynov is having food and water. He keeps contact with his family by telephone. He is not conducting a hunger strike. His health is also normal, and he enjoys all the rights he is allowed under the law,” said Mehman Sadigov, a prison service spokesman.  

On January 3, a group of activists held a rally in Baku demanding the Huseynov’s release, with posters depicting Huseynov and chanting “Freedom to Mehman.” Ten of the activists were detained by police.


Lamiya Adilgiz
i is a freelance Azerbaijani journalist.

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Politics

Senator Marco Rubio Calls for Immediate Release of Mehman Huseynov

The Azeri Times

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US Senator Marco Rubio called on official Baku to immediately release blogger Mehman Huseynov.

“Azerbaijani blogger Mehman Huseynov remains imprisoned on a trumped-up charge. Now he is in a critical situation due to a hunger strike. The government of Azerbaijan should release him immediately,” the senator wrote in his blog on Twitter.

Recall that Huseynov continues his hunger strike for the 10th day in connection with a new case brought against him about alleged resistance to the warden in the prison, where he is serving a two-year term on defamation charges against the police

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