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AZERI GOVERNMENT TAPS SOCIAL MEDIA TO WOO YOUTH

The Azeri Times

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This article was originally published by Eurasianet

Last August, a new, Azeri-language media brand appeared on Facebook and immediately became a favorite among young Azerbaijanis. Bele Bele Ishler – roughly translated as “Stuff Like This” – offers informative, lively social media videos on history and culture.

In just six months, Bele Bele Ishler garnered 190,000 Facebook followers, a remarkable success by Azerbaijani standards.

“This kind of impartiality […] about the lives of forgotten people who played an important role in the development of Azerbaijan should be an example to the country’s media,” one reader posted, in a typically glowing comment.

But its reputation took a hit on December 24, when Bele Bele Ishler published a video honoring President Ilham Aliyev on his 56th birthday. Plenty of users congratulated Aliyev, but others were turned off. “Stuff Like This has stuff like this now,” one complained, noting similarities to standard state puffery. “Well, everything is clear now. I was wondering when this government project was going to start real propaganda,” said another.

Online, Bele Bele Ishler offers no information about who runs it. “We don’t have time for an interview or comment,” someone at the site told Eurasianet in response to a Facebook message requesting an interview. Efforts to reach other employees went ignored.

Another new initiative in Baku – Cavan (meaning “young”) – is also discreet about its backers but has more explicitly endorsed the authorities from its beginning. On its “About us” page, the Cavan Youth Movement warmly references Aliyev, his father, former President Heydar Aliyev, and his wife, Vice President Mehriban Aliyeva. “The main goal of the youth movement and the public association Cavan, established in 2017, is to assist the state bodies in solving problems of interest to the Azerbaijani youth,” the page declares.

In an interview with Eurasianet, Teymur Aliyev, Cavan’s press secretary, acknowledged both that Cavan receives government money and that it is behind Bele Bele Ishler.

So why the secrecy with Bele Bele Ishler?

“It is understandable. They know there won’t be sympathy for those who openly support and promote their ideology,” said political commentator and former counterintelligence officer Arastun Orujlu. “Even though the government has a strong influence over traditional local media, it is weak on social media. Through these neutral projects the authorities want to improve their reputation and use them for political purposes as needed.”

Cavan’s first public project was a music festival in Baku last fall, organized jointly with the President’s Youth Foundation. Cavan also has organized paintball tournaments and provides information about scholarships to study in Europe. More recently it waded into politics, participating in a rally for Ilham Aliyev, who has called for snap presidential elections in April amid a struggling economy.

The authorities “are afraid of young people because all change comes from the youth. Changes and revolutions take place with the enthusiasm of young people. That’s why the government is eager to keep them under control,” said Abulfaz Gurbanli, a political activist and board member of the youth opposition group, N!DA Civic Movement.

The focus on social media marks a shift from the last major government youth effort, the Ireli (“Forward”) movement. Ireli was formed in 2005, just a few months after a similar Russian group, Nashi. Like its Russian counterpart, Ireli organized mass pro-government rallies under the motto “Forward with Ilham,” and aimed to blunt the impact of opposition youth groups.

Ireli’s profile declined, in part, because of controversies surrounding some of its leaders’ ties to the Fethullah Gülen movement, the once-powerful Turkish group that has fallen out of favor with Ankara and its allies like Baku.

Meanwhile, as social media has gained influence, a void has formed.

“On social media, a lot of pages show the true face of Azerbaijan, which run counter to the official narrative,” said Habib Muntezir, an online activist who works for the exiled Meydan TV. “They want to gain audience by boosting social videos showing Azerbaijan as a great [country] with interesting historical personalities. They share success stories in order to create a positive image. Flattery doesn’t work now, that’s why they need something creative in order to hunt [for eyeballs].”

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Azerbaijan

Laza, the land of waterfalls – Photo Gallery

The Azeri Times

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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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Azerbaijan

Opposition activist sentenced to 6 years in Azerbaijan

The Azeri Times

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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

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

The Azeri Times

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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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