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‘Total Control’: Azerbaijan’s Jails Fill With Journalists and Dissidents as Election Approaches

When she was a teenager, Sevinj Vaqifqizi wanted to be a journalist so badly that she almost sabotaged her college application.

“We were given the chance to list our top 10 choices of places to study,” she once recalled in a personal essay for OCCRP. “I filled in eight of them, and in every slot I wrote the same thing: the School of Journalism at Baku State University.”

“My teachers told me it would be better to list another choice, in case my test scores weren’t good enough,” she added. “But my decision was firm: journalism or nothing.”

It’s a career path that has now landed her in jail, along with five colleagues and dozens of other critics of Azerbaijan’s authoritarian government. The crackdown that has swept through the country in recent months has entangled whistleblowers, activists, union organizers, other journalists, and a well-respected academic whose life may be hanging by a thread.

As they languish behind bars, the country’s President Ilham Aliyev is projecting confidence. He has fought publicly with the United States, defied international human rights bodies, and found time to celebrate his most recent victory: the expulsion of over 100,000 Armenians from their homes in the long-disputed Azerbaijani territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Aliyev has also called a snap election for February 7, the outcome of which is, of course, not in doubt. It will take place in an environment that has been swept clean of any trace of organized criticism or opposition.


President Ilham Aliyev kisses an Azerbaijani flag


Credit:
President.az

In October 2023, President Ilham Aliyev kisses an Azerbaijani flag in Khojaly, a town that had been retaken by his military the previous month.

It’s been a long road. Azerbaijan was already a dangerous place for independent-minded reporters back in 2005, when Vaqifqizi was still applying to university. Just a few years earlier, as Azerbaijan’s previous president lay dying in an American hospital, his son Ilham Aliyev won his first election, marked by rampant fraud and intimidation of his opponents.

It wouldn’t be the last. Each subsequent vote or constitutional change only served to cement the younger Aliyev’s corrupt and dictatorial rule. By 2010, when Vaqifqizi graduated from university and took her first newspaper job, the term limits on the presidency had been abolished. In 2013, the year she started working for the well-known Azadliq newspaper, election ‘results’ touting an impressive Aliyev victory were accidentally released before the voting had even started.

But Vaqifqizi kept reporting. She covered poor schools, decrepit hospitals, environmental pollution, and corrupt government contracts, impressing her colleagues with her professionalism and her ability to maintain a strict line between journalism and activism in a country where many did not feel they had that luxury.

“As the years passed, we got used to it,” she wrote for OCCRP in 2021. “Fear faded out. Honestly, I don’t feel fear anymore. I know what they can do, and it does not stop me.”

By that point, she had already faced a four-year ban on foreign travel and had her phone hacked by spyware of terrifying power. But this November, she was forced to prove her mettle again.

While on a trip to Turkey, the 34-year-old Vaqifqizi — now the editor-in-chief of Abzas Media, one of the few remaining independent outlets in Azerbaijan — got word that her boss, the outlet’s founder Ulvi Hasanli, had been arrested. Authorities claimed to have found 40,000 euros held in the organization’s office illegally, which Abzas Media says did not belong to them, implying the money had been planted by law enforcement agents.

But though the departure lounges in Istanbul airport lead anywhere in the world, Vaqifqizi would countenance only one destination: home. “I couldn’t bear to live abroad while Ulvi is in jail,” she told a friend who tried to dissuade her from returning. “I would rather die in Azerbaijan.”

Then, still in the departure lounge, as other travelers milled around behind her, she made a defiant statement on behalf of herself and her colleagues. In an interview with an outlet based in exile, Vaqifqizi laid the blame for her colleague’s detention at the president’s feet.

“The arrest of Ulvi Hasanli is on the order of Ilham Aliyev, because we’ve proven how companies belonging to [Aliyev’s] family members won projects … with opaque mechanisms,” she said. “Their purpose in detaining Ulvi Hasanli and making false charges against him is to stop the work of Abzas Media. From now on, there should be no journalists or media organizations exposing the corrupt crimes that occurred in our country.”


Sevinj Vaqifqizi makes a final statement

Credit:
YouTube / Meydan TV

Sevinj Vaqifqizi makes a final statement in the Istanbul airport before boarding her flight to Azerbaijan — and prison.

“We will continue to do what we believe is right,” she said with a final flash of her eyes. “They should not think they can stop these investigations by arresting individual persons. It will not happen. And we will continue to disappoint them.”

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Vaqifqizi boarded her plane. Hours later, as she disembarked in the Azeri capital of Baku, she was arrested before even reaching passport control.

She wasn’t the last: Soon another colleague was detained. Then another. And another. Five journalists associated with Abzas Media, plus the organization’s deputy director, have now spent over two months in pre-trial detention on charges of smuggling foreign currency. The police searched their offices and confiscated their laptops, and within days stories appeared in the state press accusing them of receiving foreign money for nefarious purposes.

An analyst based in Azerbaijan, whose name cannot be revealed to ensure his safety, says the end-point of the latest crack-down is grim: “I believe this is part of a bigger ambition to turn the country into something that’s similar to Turkmenistan,” he says. “Where there is total control.”

“This is the right time, because the whole global order is changing, and they understand that it’s not in favor of the democratic governments. And also, they don’t need good relations with the West any longer.”

The Taste of Caviar

If any country needs independent investigative journalism of the kind practiced by Vaqifqizi and her colleagues, it’s Azerbaijan.

Of the former Soviet republics, it is among the richest in energy sources. Azerbaijan’s state energy company, SOCAR, rivals the Russian oil and gas giants in its success at selling to the world and in its role as the keystone of the country’s wealth.

Unfortunately, as in Russia, most of this money fails to make its way to ordinary citizens. Over the years, Aliyev has proven adept at using the energy money sloshing through Azerbaijan’s economy for two purposes: enriching his family and sidelining foreign criticism of his human rights record.

In 2021, for example, a leak of offshore documents known as the Pandora Papers helped OCCRP uncover a London property empire worth nearly $700 million that had been accumulated by Aliyev’s children, his father-in-law, and his associates through a network of dozens of secretive shell companies. The holdings included penthouse apartments, townhouses, commercial properties, and even an entire 8-story building that was owned, for years, by Aliyev’s underage son.

This alone would be enough to impress many of the world’s less ambitious autocrats. But it was just the latest finding in years of painstaking reporting, often conducted with the help of young Azerbaijani journalists who could not be credited to protect them and their families.

As part of the “Khadija Project” — named after then-imprisoned Azerbaijani reporter Khadija Ismayilova — OCCRP revealed yachts, summer homes, hotels, mansions, banks, and other assets accumulated by the country’s “first family” or appropriated for their benefit.

Ismayilova’s arrest at the end of 2014, and her sentencing to a lengthy prison term the following year, was part of a massive wave of repression that devastated much of Azerbaijan’s civil society in the mid-2010s.

During that time, Radio Free Europe’s Azerbaijani service, independent outlet Meydan TV, Voice of America, and many other outlets were shut down or forced into exile. Dozens of journalists, activists, and NGO workers were also arrested.

But in the outside world — often the last place political prisoners can turn for support — the reaction was underwhelming. Still determined to maintain his alliances with the West, Aliyev made sure to reserve plenty of carrots for persuadable foreign friends — even as Azerbaijanis got the sticks at home.

To upgrade his country’s image, Aliyev made Azerbaijan the host of a range of splashy international extravaganzas, including the Eurovision song contest in 2012, the first-ever European Games in 2015, and the Formula 1 Grand Prix of Europe in 2016.


A sign advertising the Baku European Games

Credit:
Eric Nathan / Alamy Stock Photo

A sign advertising the Baku European Games in 2015.

On the other side of the Atlantic, reports proliferated of how Azerbaijan’s lobbyists were busy convincing U.S. members of congress of the country’s value as an energy supplier and ally in the ‘War on Terror.’ In the middle of the crackdown, American legislators praised Azerbaijan for its “close and important relationship” with the United States and its “commitment to the ideals of democracy.” Meanwhile, the Washington Post exposed how 10 members of congress had gone on an all-expenses-paid trip to the country that was secretly sponsored by SOCAR.

But much of the action — or lack thereof — was in Europe. In what became known as ‘caviar diplomacy’ after a series of reports by a Berlin-based watchdog group, it emerged that Azerbaijan had poured cash and expensive gifts, including tins of caviar, into befriending legislators at the Council of Europe, the continent’s premier human rights body.

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As a result, though Azerbaijan came in for repeated criticism there, a high-profile report on political prisoners in the country was voted down. And though human rights groups repeatedly pushed for Azerbaijan’s delegation to the body’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) be suspended, Baku stayed on.

“There was a decision of the European Court of Human Rights which recognized that there are political prisoners in the country, which is against all the values of the Council of Europe,” says the Azerbaijan-based analyst. “There were elections held that were in very significant violation of all the Council of Europe provisions. But [the expulsion] never happened.”

That long battle, at least, now appears to be over. Last week, citing Azerbaijan’s failure to fulfill “major commitments” over 20 years after joining the Council, and noting that “at least 18 journalists and media actors are currently in detention,” the PACE voted to suspend the Azerbaijani delegation.

‘Spy Network’

Azerbaijan’s suspension was a “historic moment,” according to Gerald Knaus, the chairman and co-founder of the European Stability Initiative, which authored the original ‘caviar diplomacy’ reports.

Meanwhile, the Azerbaijani-based analyst hailed PACE’s move as “the first official sanction that the government faced because of [its] human rights violations.”

A less charitable interpretation is that Azerbaijan no longer cares enough to cater to Western pressures about human rights.

“Azerbaijan is feeling that it needs what the West has to offer less,” says Thomas de Waal, a British journalist and expert on the Caucuses. “They could have easily fought to stay in the PACE and made a few concessions, but they didn’t. They let that happen to them. And that’s indicative.”

De Waal noted that Azerbaijan has been building stronger ties with Turkey and Russia –– countries that are far less critical of its government.

The Azerbaijani government is especially sensitive to any reproval of its recent actions in regard to Armenia. In fact, the arrest of the Abzas Media journalists — who the Azerbaijani government appears to regard as paid U.S. agents — was preceded by an unusually public and nasty spat with the United States over this issue.

On November 15, just five days before the arrest of Abzas Media cofounder Hasanli, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James O’Brien condemned Azerbaijan’s incursion into Nagorno-Karabakh in testimony before the House. On the following day, the U.S. Congress voted to suspend all military aid to Azerbaijan.

The reaction on the Azerbaijani side was openly furious. The Foreign Ministry called O’Brien’s statements “counterproductive, baseless, and unacceptable,” and within days, the Azerbaijani media was filled with conspiratorial stories about nefarious U.S. spy networks.

The situation didn’t stop spiraling until O’Brien visited Azerbaijan for talks with President Aliyev in early December. On that occasion, both sides issued statements celebrating the two countries’ deep historical ties and the resumption of mutual diplomatic visits.

Neither the Azerbaijani nor the American read-out of the meeting made any mention of the imprisoned Abzas journalists or any other political prisoners.

“That was a big frustration,” says the Azerbaijan-based analyst. “That [O’Brien] didn’t even meet, or consider meeting, anyone in the civil society or opposition, although the civil society and opposition were targeted in the framework of relations with the U.S.”

In response to a request for comment, a U.S. State Department spokesperson wrote that the United States is “increasingly troubled” by the government’s recent detentions of journalists and activists, adding that O’Brien “raised these human rights concerns in his meetings with government officials.”

In an interview with journalists from France24, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to France rejected criticism of her country’s human rights record.

“No one in Azerbaijan is imprisoned or interrogated for their profession or their political opinions,” she said. “If there is a questioning of a journalist or of a person from the opposition, it is simply for a violation of the law.”

“In Azerbaijan, we have a separation of powers, like anywhere in Europe,” she said. “Justice and the law work the same everywhere.”

Systematic Torture

For Vaqifqizi and her imprisoned colleagues at Abzas Media — Ulvi Hasanli, Nargiz Absalamova, Elnara Gasimova, Hafiz Babali, and Mahammad Kekalov — such geopolitical considerations may now be a moot point.

For now, their supporters have one overwhelming worry — that they may be beaten, tortured, or otherwise mistreated while in their prison cells.

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Hasanli has already indicated that he was beaten while in custody. His lawyer, Elchin Sagidov, has warned that there are “numerous cases of mistreatment and torture of individuals in prisons.”

“Generally, mistreatment of political prisoners doesn’t occur without orders from higher authorities,” he told reporters from Forbidden Stories.

One does not have to go far to find horrific stories from Azerbaijan’s prisons and detention centers. Numerous cases, including beatings with hard objects, electric shocks, and truncheon blows on the soles of the feet, have been documented by the Council of Europe’s Committee to Prevent Torture (CPT), which is empowered to conduct visits to the country’s detention centers.

It is unknown whether any of the Abzas journalists are currently undergoing any such treatment, as they have long been denied communication with their families.

‘He Knew What He Was Doing’

The family of another high-profile Azerbaijani political prisoner — economist and civil activist Gubad Ibadoglu — fears that even without explicit torture, their loved one may never again see the light of day.

“The thing I miss the most is every day getting a call from my father,” says Emin Baryamli, Ibadoglu’s 21-year-old son, who is studying at Rutgers University in the United States.

“My eyes are tearing up because I miss it a lot. I used to get a call from my father every single day, before midterms. You know, do I need money? Do I have warm clothes? Did I get a coffee today?”


Dr. Gubad Ibadoglu

Credit:
Voice of America

Dr. Gubad Ibadoglu, currently being held in what his family says are life-threatening conditions in pre-trial detention.

Ibadoglu was violently arrested in Azerbaijan on July 23, 2023, in the early stages of the crackdown that swept up the Abzas journalists.

He has recently been based in the United Kingdom, but had traveled to Azerbaijan to see his elderly mother, his son Bayramli says — a “personal visit” that had no political motive. Nevertheless, the authorities charged Ibadoglu with possession of counterfeit money and religious extremism. By some accounts, the amount recovered from Ibadoglu’s office was $40,000 — the same figure associated with the Abzas journalists’ arrests, only in a different currency.

He has been ordered held for nearly four months pending trial. Over that period, his family says, Ibadoglu’s health has deteriorated sharply. The academic suffers from diabetes and other ailments, which his son can recall in almost encyclopedic detail.

“My dad’s heart, the aortic root, has expanded from 37 to 45 millimeters,” he says. “That was September. And now it’s [so much] greater that they’re not even saying what it is.”

“He has a very, very high type 2 diabetes. He needs immediate help. He’s facing a diabetic coma. He has run out of all of his medication,” he says. “There are no outside doctors seeing him. The International Committee of the Red Cross tried to see him three times or more. All have been denied.”

Asked why he thought his father was under such persecution, Bayramli cited his outspoken work in economics.

Perhaps most irritatingly for Aliyev, Ibadoglu has been a sharp critic of how Azerbaijan’s government has exploited its vast energy resources.

“Despite huge spending,” reads the abstract of one of his papers, “[Azerbaijan’s] role as an economic leader in the region is declining and people are suffering from poverty and poor social services. Oil and gas revenues have brought neither improved welfare nor democracy to Azerbaijan.”

“His most dangerous thing is that he knew what he was doing,” said Ibadoglu’s son, Bayramli.

Among other activities, Ibadoglu has attempted to register an Azerbaijani political party, maintained a YouTube channel with thousands of subscribers, and run an Azerbaijani think tank that was shut down in the mid-2010s crackdown.

In what may have been the final straw, just weeks before his detention, Ibadoglu co-founded the Azerbaijani Youth Education Foundation in the U.K. According to a now-deleted Facebook post, the organization, which was meant to support higher education for young Azerbaijanis and place them in foreign universities, was to be funded in part by assets confiscated from corrupt Azerbaijani elites abroad.

“I think Aliyev wanted to do this for a long time,” Bayramli says, referring to his father’s arrest and imprisonment. “He doesn’t even have to ask his aides about my father’s case. He knows all about it.”

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