AZERBAIJAN WATCH: Crackdown on Investigative Media Outlet Backfires


By Paul Vartan Sookiasian

AZERBAIJAN WATCH, a recurring title under which CivilNet will focus on what is happening inside the neighboring country.

Azerbaijan has been the subject of investigations published by multiple leading outlets in recent weeks. The collaborative journalistic effort behind them is known as The Baku Connection, which is committed to continue the reporting of the Azerbaijani investigative outlet Abzas Media, which was one of the rare human rights media outlets which still remained in Azerbaijan. It had focused on investigating corruption within the Azerbaijani ruling regime until late last year when its director, editor-in-chief, and journalists were imprisoned in order to stop their work. The Azerbaijani government also linked Abzas with a purported “spy network” it accused the United States of running in Baku, in what appeared to be retribution against the US’s condemnation of the violent conquest of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The Abzas suppression is just a few of the many arrests of journalists, civil society members, and activists in the run-up to the February 7 presidential election. The most prominent of them is the scholar Gubad Ibadoghlu, whose release has been demanded by a resolution passed by the European Parliament, along with US congressmen and British parliamentarians.

France24, UK’s The Guardian, and other international outlets will be amplifying the Baku Connection reports, at a time when Azerbaijan is particularly sensitive about its reputation in the lead up to the COP29 UN environmental conference hosted in Baku.

One of the reports released since the project debuted on February 1 documents cases of torture in Azerbaijani prison and grim conditions despite the fact Council of Europe has spent about 1.3 million euros to reform Azerbaijan’s prison and justice systems. Another one of the reports released so far discusses the protests against the poisonous Gedabek gold mine in the village of Söyüdlü located near the border with Armenia’s Gegharkunik region.

Meanwhile Amnesty International brought attention to the Abzas case and the other journalists arrested on fabricated charges for exposing corruption. It condemned Azerbaijan, while specifically citing the upcoming COP29 conference to be held in Baku. Amnesty sent a message which will no doubt be repeated often in the months to come: Such behavior from the host of such a prominent international gathering is completely unacceptable. On February 15, former President of Ireland Mary Robinson issued a similar call for Azerbaijan to fix its human rights situation before hosting COP29.

US Senator Ben Cardin also stated Azerbaijan must take specific human rights actions before hosting COP29, in response to the Absaz crackdown. Azerbaijani officials replied with fury, calling Cardin “Azerbaijanophobic.”

Azerbaijani officials have also been conducting a smear campaign against European politicians who have criticized Azerbaijan’s human rights situation, including Frank Schwabe who led the rejection of the country’s credentials to participate in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. While activists were very surprised to see the German politician being so specifically attacked by the Azerbaijani community of California of all places, there appears to be a straightforward reason behind it. Azerbaijani Ambassador to Germany Nasimi Aghayev was previously the Consul General in California, and created a number of Twitter accounts purporting to be actual grassroots organizations in California. Since moving to Germany, he has allegedly created similar accounts for fake German organizations and individuals, and utilizes the California accounts to further amplify their attacks.

That’s not to say all European officials have changed their tune. In fact, UK ambassador Fergus Auld has gone the extra mile by playing dress-up as a pilot in a commercial for Azerbaijan’s state-owned airline, which is owned by political elites including the Aliyev family.

While some of Azerbaijan’s closest allies congratulated President Aliyev on winning another term immediately after polls closed on February 7, various others have held off. One who didn’t hold off though was President of the European Council Charles Michel- and as you can see from the huge “ratio” of his tweet- he was widely criticized for it. Many asked how the EU can talk about democracy and freedom, and yet sign off on an election which was so clearly fraudulent. That said, Aliyev has refused to engage in peace talks with Armenia at European venues. Less than two weeks after this tweet, Aliyev suddenly and unexpectedly met with Pashinyan under European auspices. Coincidence?

Azerbaijan’s withdrawal from PACE has been part of a wider trend of it going away from Europe and towards Russia, while simultaneously increasing its rhetoric against Armenia. Yet last weekend Azerbaijan did consent to a Western-brokered meeting, so does that mean it has been coaxed back into co-operation, at least for now? Or is this notion of resuming peace talks just a mirage for Azerbaijan to stave off Western pressure while preparing for another attack?

While for years a mixture of bribery and a reluctance to push Azerbaijan away kept it within the body, as this PACE member explains that only made things worse in Azerbaijan. An end was finally put to that with the vote to reject Azerbaijan’s PACE credentials. However, it appears too little too late as Azerbaijan got the international legitimacy it required for years and now feels emboldened enough to not care anymore.

This same lack of criticism was long seen from foreign diplomats to Baku. This uncritical streak was finally snapped in recent weeks, both regarding the mass arrests of Azerbaijani journalists and over Azerbaijan’s rumor-mongering and extreme criticism of the EU monitoring mission in Armenia. EU ambassador Michalko was then summoned by the Azerbaijani government over its concerns on the EU’s monitoring mission on the Armenian side of the border. The regime has taken to calling the EU’s presence in Armenia “Azerbaijanophobic”, without providing further explanation. In recent days it has gotten even more extreme, as on February 14 Azerbaijan it went as far as to claim the EU unarmed mission is the “patron” of “mercenary” groups aimed at attacking Azerbaijan, essentially accusing the EU of being a military adversary. Azerbaijani government-linked state television also spread rumors that France and Armenia are planning a joint military operation to attack from Jermuk. Thus the surprise of Azerbaijan’s sudden decision to change its policy and submit to a meeting overseen by an EU-member state this weekend. The question now is whether it is a genuine shift, or just a way to deflect western pressure while preparing for another attack on Armenia. As always, watch this space.

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