One Year of Unprecedented Repression in Azerbaijan...
LONDON. July 30, 2015: A group of international organizations including 89up, Article 19, Committee to Protect Journalists, Index on Censorship, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), International Media Support, Pen American Center, People in Need, Platform, Solidarity with Belarus Information Office, World Organization Against Torture (OMCT) issued a joint statement expressing their concerns over the ongoing repressions in Azerbaijan on an unprecedented scale. Below is the full text of that statement:
A year after the Azerbaijani government launched an unprecedented crackdown on human rights, the situation in the country continues to deteriorate. The Sport for Rights Coalition calls on the international community to immediately and publicly condemn the government of Azerbaijan's actions and take concrete steps to support Azerbaijani civil society.
One year ago, on 30 July 2014, Azerbaijani human rights defender Leyla Yunus was arrested and charged with treason, fraud, forgery, tax evasion, and illegal entrepreneurship. Yunus, the Director of the Institute of Peace and Democracy, was a tireless rights advocate, likely targeted for her work on behalf of Azerbaijan’s many political prisoners, and her call for a boycott of the inaugural European Games, which took place in Baku in June 2015.
Yunus’s arrest marked the start of a period of unprecedented repression in Azerbaijan. The human rights situation in the country has now reached alarming lows as the authorities aggressively pursue the very individuals who worked to defend those already targeted for expressing critical opinions.
On 2 August 2014, human rights defender and founder of the Sport for Rights campaign Rasul Jafarov was arrested on charges of illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, and abuse of power.
On 5 August 2014, Leyla Yunus’s husband Arif Yunus, a historian and activist in his own right, was arrested, followed by human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev on 8 August 2014, on similar charges.
BAKU. July 30, 2015 (RFE/RL): A high-ranking member of Azerbaijan's opposition Popular Front Party has been sent to jail.
The Baku Court for Serious Crimes found Asif Yusifli guilty of fraud and forgery on July 30 and sentenced him to 7 1/2 years in jail the same day.
Yusifli's co-defendant, Rafiq Huseynov, was sentenced to 12 1/2 years in jail on the same charges.
Yusifli, who was arrested in November, pleaded not guilty and called the case against him a retaliation by the authorities for his political and rights activities.
International and domestic human rights organizations, as well as EU and U.S. officials have expressed deep concern about Azerbaijan's crackdown on oppositionists, rights activists, and journalists in recent years.
WASHINGTON. July 30, 3015: Yesterday, July 29, the National Press Club presented its highest press freedom prize to jailed Azeri investigative reporter and RFE/RL contributor Khadija Ismayilova. Ismayilova has been held in pretrial detention in a Baku prison for 234 days on charges many observers link to her investigations of high-level corruption involving Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, and which could bring a prison sentence of 19 years.
RFE/RL Editor in Chief Nenad Pejic accepted the award on Ismayilova’s behalf, saying "Khadija is in prison because of her journalism...This award is an acknowledgement of her courage and her convictions, but it is also a call to all of us here tonight to condemn her imprisonment and demand her freedom."
Each year, the National Press Club presents its John Aubuchon Press Freedom Awards to reporters or others who manifest the values of a free press. Other recipients of the 2015 award are Austin Tice, who has been detained in Syria since 2012, and Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post reporter who has been imprisoned in Iran for more than a year – also on charges widely believed to be politically motivated.
BAKU. July 27, 2015: Today the Baku Grave Crimes Court held a hearing on the case of the imprisoned human rights activists Leyla Yunus and Arif Yunus. The outspoken human rights advocates and the Aliyev regime's critics Leyla and Arif Yunus are charged with treason, fraud, forgery, tax evasion, and illegal business activities. The major international human rights organizations such as the Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch regard these charges as bogus accusations used as a pretext to punish the Azeri dissidents.
Turan News Agency reported that Leyla Yunus' lawyer Elchin Gambarov brought to the judge's attention that the courtroom doors had been shut and the local and foreign journalists, civic activists and diplomats were not allowed to observe the trial. The judge dismissed the lawyer's motion to open the courtroom doors to those who wanted to observe the trial. Arif Yunus' lawyer Afghan Mammadov petitioned to change the measure of restraint for Arif Yunusov, considering his poor health, but the prsecution opposed the motion and the judge upheld the prosecution's position.
Leyla Yunus called the prosecution team and the investigators in her case 'executioners'. Leyla Yunus had repeatedly noted that she had been beaten and tortured while in custody.
BAKU. July 27, 2015 (RFE/RL): A brother-in-law of an outspoken Azerbaijani activist-in-exile has been arrested on drugs-related charges.
Nazim Agabeyov, brother-in-law of activist Emin Milli, was arrested in Baku on July 27. Milli says the accusations are "bogus and absurd."
Milli, who is the director of the Meydan TV online television project, said that it is "a widespread practice" of the Azerbaijani government to "punish relatives, family members, and take them as hostages."
BAKU. July 24, 2015: Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova asserted her innocence during the first day of her trial in Baku, saying the charges against her of embezzlement, tax evasion, and abuse of power are politically motivated.
Ismayilova, who reported extensively on official corruption in Azerbaijan as an RFE/RL contributor, was ordered to return to court on August 7.
The jailed investigative reporter told the court during the preliminary hearing on June 24 that "[Azerbijani President] Ilham Aliyev has arrested me because of personal hostility" and "to hinder my journalistic activity."
Her lawyer filed motions during the hearing for dismissal of the case, substitution of pretrial detention with home arrest, and exclusion of some witnesses' names from the witness list.
None of those defense motions was upheld.
The court left unresolved another defense motion to allow a lawyer for RFE/RL to participate in the trial in order to defend Ismayilova against accusations derived from a criminal case launched in December against RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, known locally as Radio Azadliq.
BAKU. July 21, 2015: After a period of estrangement, Baku has laid out its terms for getting back on friendly terms with Washington. The suggestions may have come in the form of commentaries from local news outlets, but the medium is the message in Azerbaijan, where most mainstream media is under the government's thumb.
Ultimately, Baku's demands boil down to being accepted for what it is; an increasingly authoritarian regime, by estimates of any international human rights watchdog, and that the US should quit trying to change it.
APA, for instance, in a July 14 piece, construed a meeting between the Azerbaijani armed forces’ Chief of Staff Colonel General Nejmeddin Sadikov and the unnamed US embassy defense attaché as a mutual attempt to mend fences — despite what other outlets, in a copy-and-paste brief, termed the allegedly “destructive” policies of the State Department.
PRAGUE. July 20, 2015: Investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova made a name for herself uncovering official corruption in a country where criticism of the government is rarely tolerated and frequently punished.
For her efforts, the RFE/RL contributor has been secretly videotaped, publicly smeared, threatened, imprisoned, and accused of treason. This week (on July 24 -- changed from original July 22), after seven months in jail, she goes on trial to face charges of libel, tax evasion, illegal business activity, and abuse of power.
Ismayilova has claimed the charges against her are politically motivated, and her detention has been roundly criticized as evidence of official repression in Azerbaijan.
The journalist's work has clearly irked the authorities and other powerful figures in Azerbaijan. What and who, exactly, did she take on?
Ismayilova's exposés, written until she was put in pretrial detention late last year, focused on apparent nepotism within the highest levels of Azerbaijan's ruling establishment, including the family of President Ilham Aliyev.
BAKU. July 16, 2015 (RFE/RL): Jailed Azerbaijani human rights advocates Leyla and Arif Yunus will go on trial on July 27, a judge said at a preliminary hearing nearly a year after their arrest on what the ailing couple and their supporters say are politically motivated charges.
Leyla Yunus, 59, and her husband Arif, 60, are among several activists, journalists, and government critics behind bars in the Caspian Sea state, where rights groups say President Ilham Aliyev has assiduously pursued a campaign to silence dissent.
Leyla and Arif Yunus have been charged with treason, fraud, forgery, tax evasion, and illegal business activities. The Prosecutor General's Office has said that the couple was involved in passing classified information to agents of Armenia -- Azerbaijan's neighbor and foe.
BAKU. July 15, 2015 (Azadliq.org): She looked pale and smaller. Standing behind the glass cage, was not the 59 year old rights activist Leyla Yunus people remembered. She has lost significant amount of weight too. It was also the first time, the couple have seen each other in almost a year. The two were arrested one week apart and held in separate facilities.
Today was the preliminary hearing in the case of Leyla and Arif Yunus.
The prosecutor dismissed all the motions raised by the attorneys. During the break, Leyla Yunus spoke to the journalists. She said both of them are subject to physical torture and intimidation. Mrs. Yunus added her husband might have cancer. However he has been refused any medical check up and so impossible to confirm. Mrs. Yunus herself said she lost vision in her left eye. "The last time I was beaten on June 20. This when I stopped seeing in my left eye completely" added Leyla Yunus.
Following the break, the prosecutors refused to grant Leyla Yunus her right to speak and defend herself as they read out the charges.
BAKU. July 14, 2015: Yesterday, during the cabinet meeting of his government, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev attacked the Western countries accusing them of attempting to dictate the terms of cooperation with Azerbaijan. Speaking of the Western criticism for the growing crackdown on the civil society in Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev said: “Those (critical) resolutions are just pieces of paper for us. Therefore no one will ever implement them. Let the Azerbaijani people and the ones who drew up those ugly resolutions know it. No one can dictate to Azerbaijan."
The Azerbaijani president specifically dwelled on the resolution recently adopted by the Germany's lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, which criticized the human rights situation in Azerbaijan. “Who do they think they are?” questioned Ilham Aliyev. "Is the German Bundestag master of the world, ruler of the world, should everyone obey them? ... We don't want anything from them, while they, on the contrary, need our gas, contracts, oil and our activity in this region," Aliyev said.
Ilham Aliyev also said the leaders of the Western countries did not mean any of the criticisms for the human rights abuses in Azerbaijan and paid a mere lip service to those values. Specifically, after dismissing the human rights criticisms of the Western countries, Ilham Aliyev said: “Nevertheless, we have no problems with European countries in a bilateral format. And in many cases, I certainly talk about all these shortcomings during the meetings with the heads of Europe’s leading countries, they say: don't pay attention, they (those voicing the criticisms of the human rights abuses in Azerbaijan –ed.) don’t deserve any attention. We don’t pay attention, if we did, we would do what they say. No one will do what they say. These resolutions are just a piece of paper for us. Therefore no one will ever implement any of what they say. Let them know that. Let the Azerbaijani people know that and also let those who prepare those dirty articles know that. Azerbaijan cannot be talked to in a language of dictate. Azerbaijan can be befriended or partnered with. We are ready for that. And this is how we will proceed in the future.”
95 lawyers from 24 countries call for the immediate and unconditional release of human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev. He has been in jail in Azerbaijan since August 8, 2014.
GENEVA. July 14, 2015 (Human Rights House Foundation): In a letter to President Ilham Aliyev, independent lawyers, barristers or attorneys-at-law, express concern over the sentencing of their colleague, human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev: “We call upon you, Mr President, to immediately and unconditionally release Intigam Aliyev and rehabilitate his civil and political rights.”
After six months in detention on spurious charges Intigam Aliyev was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison.
“We identify with Intigam Aliyev”, the lawyers write, “because we believe everybody should have a right to a fair trial, just as he does. Yet, Intigam Aliyev’s trial was marred by procedural irregularities and violations of the right to a public hearing and the right to access the files and documents of the case.” In addition, Intigam Aliyev’s attorney managed to prove that he was not guilty of implementing projects without registration, which he was charged with.
All 95 lawyers express their sympathy for Intigam Aliyev, as a unique lawyer. Not only is he a teacher for a generation of young Azerbaijanis, but he is also an expert of the European legal system, one of the first Azerbaijani lawyers to utilize the European Court of Human Rights and the regional tutor in the Human Rights Education for Legal Professionals (HELP) programme of the Council of Europe.
BAKU. July 13, 2015: Turan News Agency reports that the preparatory trial in the case of the imprisoned journalist Khadija Ismayilova is scheduled for July 22, the day which is marked in Azerbaijan as the National Press Day.
Khadija Ismayilova is an internationally recognized Azerbaijani journalist, famous for her investigative articles about the wide-spread corruption in the Azerbaijani government, including the family members of the Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev himself. Until her arrest, Khadija Ismayilova worked as a journalist at the local office of the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, funded by the US Congress.
Ismayilova was arrested in December 2014 based on the trumped-up charge of causing someone to attempt a suicide. The alleged victim of this charge is alive and safe. This charge was brought based on the complaint of someone called Tural Mustafayev. He has since withdrawn his complaint making a statement that he had been forced by the Azerbaijani law enforcement officials to make that complaint. However, the prosecution still maintains that charge against Khadija Ismayilova. While Khadija Ismayilova was in pre-trial detention, the prosecution brought additional charges against her including embezzlement, illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, and abuse of power.
International human rights organizations recognize Khadija Ismayilova as a prisoner of conscience (Azeri Report).
BAKU. July 13, 2015 (Azadliq.org): July 13, Leyla and Arif Yunus were scheduled to appear in a court room to start their trial. However, the hearing was postponned until July 15 according to Azadliq Radiosu. No reasons for the change in date were provided.
A number of embassy representatives appeared in court including Kati Piri, member of the European Parliament who traveled to Baku to attend the hearing.
Leyla Yunus, director of Peace and Democracy Institute was arrested July 30, 2014 while her husband, Arif Yunus was arrested August 5 of last year. The couple is charged with treason, illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, fraud, and forgery. -0-
WASHINGTON. July 9, 2015: Yesterday, July 8, 16 U.S. Senators addressed a letter to the Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev expressing their concern about the diminishing space for civil society and the harassment of activists in Azerbaijan. The initiative, led by Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL), highlights the detention of six prisoners of conscience who are facing long prison sentences in response to their peaceful activism: Anar Mammadli, Leyla and Arif Yunus, Intigam Aliyev, Rasul Jafarov, and Khadija Ismayilova.
Signatories to the letter also include Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Ron Johnson (R-WI), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Mark Kirk (R-IL), Ed Markey (D-MA), John McCain (R-AZ), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Gary Peters (D-MI), Jack Reed (D-RI), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Jean Shaheen (D-NH), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). Below is the full text of the letter:
Dear President Aliyev:
We write with growing concern on the diminishing space for both civil society and the freedom of press within Azerbaijan. In August, a number of us wrote to you expressing concern on the rising rate of politically motivated arrests. Since that letter, which highlighted the arrests and continued detention of Anar Mammadli, Leyla and Arif Yunus, and Intigam Aliyev, troublingly Rasul Jafarov and many more human rights activists and journalists have either been arrested or barred from leaving the country. Moreover, we have heard reports that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), of which Azerbaijan is a member, was ordered to close its office and that representatives from Amnesty International, an international human rights organization, are barred from entering the country. Even more troubling is your government’s efforts to stifle the freedom of press in Azerbaijan, as witnessed by the closure of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) office and the imprisonment of investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova.
WASHINGTON. July 8, 2015: Amanda Rivkin, an award winning American photographer who lived in Azerbaijan from 2011 - 2012 and had an opportunity to get to know Khadija and photograph her, spoke to Emil Guliyev from Voice America (VOA) about Khadija Ismayilova's arrest and efforts at home and abroad calling for her release (click here for the full text of the interview). Answering to the question whether she is satisfied with the level of the US pressure on Azerbaijan in order to obtain Khadija Ismayilova's release, Rivkin said "I am absolutely not satisfied with the level of official pressure being exerted on the government of Azerbaijan in order to obtain Khadija’s release because she remains in jail, while still publishing investigations, which is so fierce and inspiring I am simply in awe of her courage." However, in that same interview Amanda Rivkin said the following which is almost the verbatim repetition of what the Aliyev lobbyists say to justify the US support for the Aliyev regime and the US tolerance towards the human rights abuses of the Ailyev regime in Azerbaijan:
"Ilham Aliyev was and remains the consensus choice who has maintained his position by being one of the few things Russia and America could agree on. It was Ilham’s father, the former president of Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev who said, “Washington is the new Moscow.” There seems to be very little desire within Azerbaijan and among the Azerbaijani people for anything dramatic to occur politically within their country and without that domestic support for something resembling regime change, I strongly believe the US would be crazy and outright foolish to try. To this end, my conversations with people involved in the promotion of democratic values in Azerbaijan were working for much smaller things, accountability of low level officials, dialogue with the outside world, and youth activism, including with the pro-government group Ireli. Any damage caused to Ilham Aliyev and his government is therefore largely the result of a self-inflicted, self-fulfilling prophecy. The US government is well aware, especially in light of events in Libya, Syria and Iraq that this is not the moment to topple a secular, relatively stable Islamic country’s head of state. Azerbaijan is not Ukraine. To do so would be bonkers and likely pave the way for either an Islamic government or one that tilts full-scale toward Russia and her interests, if it isn’t installed directly by Russia."
Until recently, we pretended to believe that you are a developing democracy. Now, due to certain developments in your country, we will have to pretend to be mad at you for not being one. Hopefully this absolves us of any responsibility for your transgressions.
We will criticize you sharply, may even curse you out publicly. We will keep saying that we "stand with Khadija" and other dissidents. But don't worry, we will not take any real action against you.
In fact, we will keep reminding everyone "between the lines" that we don't want you to go. We will scare everyone with Libya, Syria and other disasters. So, sit tight and continue your crackdown - you are safe.
Actually, do whatever you can to suppress dissent. Otherwise, if too much visible discontent emerges, we will not be able to continue saying that "there are no significant forces for change in Azerbaijan" and justify our support for you.
BAKU. July 7, 2015 (Azadliq.org): Now that the Euro Games are over, life is slowly coming back to its usual pace in Baku. The happiest of all seem to be the drivers. Finally the lanes designated for EuoGames only are open to normal traffic. What else has changed or remained the same? A few things.
Some of the larger cars, trukcs and cars with plates registered outside of Baku are still kept at a distance from the city. The ban on their entrance was extended until July 10.
The new airconditioned metro trains are still running but together with the old ones.
No longer one can find friendly police officers or volunteers wearing "ask me" t-shirts.
Gone are also the "men in grey" - police officers wearing great suites with red ties and pins indicating they were the police. Instead, Baku is witnessing its usual police officers, back on the streets, in their usual uniforms and the usual attitude.
WASHINGTON. July 3, 2015: Jeff Goldstein from the Open Society Foundations discussed the political situation in Azerbaijan speaking to Alakbar Raufoglu, DC correspondent of the Turan News Agency. Jeff Goldstein is the senior policy analyst for Eurasia at the Open Society Foundations. Based in Washington, D.C., he is responsible for providing advocacy support for the organization’s programs in the former Soviet Union and Mongolia. Below is the video of that interview:
WASHINGTON. June 30, 2015 (Turan): Secretly funded all-expenses-paid trips of the U.S. congressmen to Azerbaijan,which are currently under investigation by the House Ethics Committee, might be just the tip of the iceberg.
The amount Azeri government isoffering to D.C. lobbyists is reportedlygoing up and up - despite growing dips in the coffers, according to reporters and researchers in the U.S. capital who closely follow the topic.
“Azeri lobbying in DC has expanded rapidly over the last few years and there is no sign of slowing down anytime in near future,” Casey Mitchel, a journalist/researcher who has been following Azerbaijan’s PR innovation in the U.S., told TURAN’s Washington D.C. correspondent.
“Azerbaijan is among top 10 countries in the world based on how much money it spends in the U.S.,” said Ilya Lozovsky, journalist at Washington, D.C.-based Foreign Policy Magazine.
The Azeri State Oil Company SOCAR, which has reportedly hired several U.S. firms to organize congressional trips to Bakuincluding the one in 2013 involving dozens of House members and staffers, still holding an office for lobbying purposes in the U.S. capital.
The Azerbaijan America Alliance, a Washington D.C.-based group led by the son of regime’s Transport Minister Ziya Mammadov, is another example of the Azeri government emissaries acting as lobbyists abroad.
BAKU. June 29, 2015: Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev has spent billions on capturing the world’s attention to the European Games in his Caspian seaside capital of Baku. He has spared no expense, including slapping plastic facades on tired buildings, building new roads and booking megastar Lady Gaga for the Opening Ceremonies. The best hotels are booked solid.
In its two-week run, the first-ever competition played host to and showcased 6,000 athletes and 3,000 officials and support staff from 50 countries.
While taxpayers ultimately foot the bill for this, two privileged citizens have been massively enriched by the games: the president’s daughters.
That’s because they control an enormous chunk of the luxury hotel business in Baku. Their hotels, sporting such well-known Western brands as the Four Seasons, Sheraton and the Marriott, sit at key points in the city.
Reporters for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) found that Leyla and Arzu Aliyeva directly own or are closely connected with six five-star hotels in Baku. One more hotel is under construction. They also own two exclusive mountain resorts, and likely have a role in a 10th hotel.
Reminiscent of the palaces of Arab princes, these hotels are known to most Azerbaijanis only through TV. They’re so expensive it would cost the average Azerbaijani a month’s salary to check in for a night or two.
WASHINGTON. June 25, 2015: Writing in The New York Review of Books, Michael Ignatieff suggests that the problem with America is not its policy challenges abroad but its “democratic dysfunction at home.” A major component of that dysfunction is “the gross failure to control the invidious power of money in politics.” (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/sep/25/new-world-disorder/)
A little noted and relatively minor example of such dysfunction occurred in May of 2013. But this minor example is indicative of the larger influences at work in the U.S. Congress.
The Assembly of the Friends of Azerbaijan (AFAZ) held a massive conference in Baku.
The country just happens to have a lot of oil. In fact, the center of Russia’s oil industry was traditionally in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, when the Baku Khanate was part of Russia. Now the country produces close to 1 million barrels of oil per day, most of which is transported by pipeline to the Turkish port of Ceyhan where it is loaded on tankers and shipped to world markets.
Azerbaijan’s U.S. Congressional friends have been very helpful in supporting the pipeline projects. The 2013 conference was only one part of that. Since then campaign funds have flowed to some of the delegation. Rep. James Bridenstine (R-Okla.), one of the conference goers, sponsored an amendment to the annual defense appropriation bill asserting the crucial significance for NATO security of building the pipelines.
While the amendment did not make it into the bill that was signed into law, he received $29,000 in campaign contributions for his 2014 re-election bid from friends of AFAZ and the Gulen movement.
Other conference goers also benefitted from campaign contributions. Representative Michael Turner (R. OH) has received $38,200 since 2011. Shirley Jackson Lee (D. Tex) has received $78,000. Ted Poe (R. TX) has received $39,000 from the same sources.
All in all, that group of donors has contributed $482,000 to federal political candidates since 2011.
WASHINGTON. June 23, 2015: The rise of Brenda Shaffer as a scholar and oft-quoted expert in the field of energy politics illustrates just how vulnerable the American foreign policy establishment is to manipulation by foreign agents.
Supported by an overseas regime and an assorted network of overt and undercover lobbyists, she used oil money to build her academic credentials, then in turn used those credentials to promote Azerbaijan’s agendas through Congressional testimony, dozens of newspaper op-eds and media appearances, countless think tank events, and even scholarly publications.
She’s still doing it.
Shaffer first walked into Congress in 2001 to testify before the House of Representatives’ Committee on International Relations.
She was introduced as “the director of the Caspian Studies Program and a post-doctoral fellow in the international security program at the Belfort [Belfer] Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government”.
Addressing lawmakers, she asked them to repeal a section of the Freedom Support Act that barred direct US aid to the Azerbaijani government. “They have extended their hand to the US. They have huge expectations that the policy of this country is based on some sort of morality and high ideals,” she told them, and reinforced this in written testimony she also submitted.
Washington. June 20, 2015: To see how foreign interests distort reality to steer political debate and influence American foreign policy, look no further than a Dec. 5, 2012, meeting in the US Congress chaired by then-Rep. Dan Burton, R-Indiana.
The meeting was of the House subcommittee on Europe and Eurasia, and the star witness was Brenda Shaffer, a Ph.D. specialist on the Caucasus and former research director of Harvard’s Caspian Studies Program.
Burton introduced her as “the prettiest gal at the table.” And she, in turn, proceeded to warn assembled lawmakers that Iran was destabilizing pro-Western countries in that region, particularly its small but oil-rich neighbor, Azerbaijan.
But Burton and Shaffer both had ties to Azerbaijan they did not tell the committee about.
Shortly after this hearing was held, Burton resigned from the House and started a new job as chairman of the board of the Azerbaijan America Alliance, a lobby group promoting closer ties between the countries and apparently funded by a family close to the president of Azerbaijan.
BAKU. June 19, 2015: A propaganda campaign to drum up support for the Olympic European Games is fuel for memes.
The first Olympic European Games are currently underway in Azerbaijan, and President Ilham Aliyev is extremely worried about his nation’s image. So much so that pro-government TV stations have been dressing up native Azerbaijanis as foreign tourists or getting sympathetic vacationers to praise the oil-rich Caucasian country in outlandish terms. It’s all to the delight of Azerbaijan’s independent media, which has satirized these Potemkin interviews in a series of viral videos and Internet memes.
On Lider TV, for instance, a channel owned by one of Aliyev’s cousins, carried this brief but hilarious exchange with a young man who identifies himself in heavily accented English as “James Bonar.” He claims to have come from London on his first ever trip to “beautiful” Baku, which he describes as “a very fantasy, just fantasy.” Also, the food is “really, really, really good, very good.”
He would certainly know since James Bonar is in fact an Azeri-born man called Seymur Safarov, from the Jebrail region, according to Emin Milli, the managing director of independent Meydan TV and a recent contributor to The Daily Beast. Clever social media sleuths at Meydan found Safarov’s original Facebook page, where he’s dressed exactly the same as he was for his Lider spot.
WASHINGTON. June 19, 2015: Rejoice! After years of enviously watching athletes in Asia, Africa, the Pacific and the Americas flaunt their sporting might together as continental brothers and sisters, Europe finally has a competition to call its own. Live, from the fifth most censored country in the world, it’s the first ever European Games.
Jutting out into the glistening Caspian Sea, Baku, the oil boom capital of Azerbaijan, is fizzing and popping with European Games mania. Six thousand athletes from 50 countries have descended on the city to run, twist and grunt their way through two weeks of gruelling sporting competition. Stadia have sprouted like mushrooms, glassy hotels stretch into the clouds and phalanxes of volunteers marshal the masses of spectators, hacks and dignitaries into arenas to watch the games, some of which will qualify athletes for the Rio Olympics next year.
It is impressive to see Baku holding an event so flash, sophisticated and well-attended when one remembers that barely two decades ago the city was a dusty backwater still convulsing from the collapse of the Soviet Union and war with neighbouring Armenia. Yet even before the opening ceremony on June 12th, there were sinister signals that this event would not quite live up to the Olympic ideals. Officials from Amnesty International, which planned to hold a press conference in Baku during the games, to highlight the country’s political prisoners, were denied visas. As were delegates from Human Rights Watch. A British activist from Platform London was detained at Baku airport for over 30 hours before being promptly deported. Journalists from the BBC, the Guardian, Radio France International and German broadcaster ARD were also denied accreditation.
BAKU. June 17, 2015 (au.eusport.com): Baku, one of the richest capital cities in Eastern Europe thanks to the oil money in Azerbaijan, witnessed the singer perform a set which was widely acclaimed as a superb centrepiece for the ceremony as the first ever European Games opened up on Friday night.
It subsequently emerged that her performance didn't come cheap, with the eye-watering sum (for a set of just 10 minutes) in stark contrast to the nominal £1 fees demanded by the likes of Paul McCartney at the opening of the London 2012 Olympics.
Was it worth it? Liam Morgan of Inside The Games said yes, even if he found Gaga's flower-strewn piano somewhat offputting: "It was difficult not to stand back and think that having Gaga perform was a true coup for the event as a whole.
LONDON. June 15, 2015: Ilham Aliyev’s family owns a 10,500-square-foot London mansion worth more than US$ 25 million.
The house is on Hampstead Lane, in a leafy corner of North London – a cool oasis from the bustle of the central tourist zone. The red-brick building stands behind an imposing security gate, hidden from prying eyes by thick hedges. The curtains in its large windows are drawn, and the driveway stands empty save for a couple of service personnel who come and go in a battered Fiat Punto.
It is an old neighborhood, and a rich one.
Just across the street stands the baronial Kenwood House, an enormous wedding-cake-style structure built in the 17th century, which was once owned by William Murray, first Earl of Mansfield.
It overlooks the rugged green expanse of Hampstead Heath, a kind of wild urban park whose landscapes inspired the great English Romantic poet John Keats.
MONTREAL. June 15, 2015 (Meydan.tv): U2 frontman Bono sent a personal message to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, demanding release of political prisoners.
"Message for President Aliyev! And that message is this Sir: if anything happens to one of our friends, we will hold you responsible!" he said at a concert in Montreal.
Bono referred to jailed Azerbaijani activists and journalists Emin Huseynov, Khadija Ismayilova, Anar Mammadli, Leyla Yunus, Rasul Jafarov, and Intigam Aliyev, whose photos were displayed in the arena.
Bono's impassioned appeal came in response to a request from the Sport for Rights campaign. Speaking on stage from his concerts in Montreal both on 12 and 13 June, Bono mentioned "six friends of ours who tonight are locked behind bars for the crime of expressing their opinion”.
BERLIN. June 12, 2015 (HRW.ORG): The first European Games will open in Azerbaijan on June 12, 2015, in an atmosphere of government repression unprecedented in the post-Soviet era, Human Rights Watch said today.
The authorities have detained dozens of critics of the government and failed to allow several journalists from major European outlets to enter the country to cover the games. They have also barred the human rights organization Amnesty International from releasing a report in Baku, the capital.
“Government repression is making the European Games historic for all the wrong reasons,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The European Olympic Committee still has the chance to prevent the Games from being tarnished by the Azerbaijani government’s abuses, but time is running out.”
Azerbaijan is hosting the inaugural European Games, a multi-sport event for over 6,000 athletes from 50 European nations, in Baku from June 12 to 28. The European Olympic Committees (EOC), an association of 50 National Olympic Committees, owns and regulates the games. Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, is also the president of the country’s National Olympic Committee, and has strong ties with the sports world.
In recent weeks Azerbaijani authorities denied or failed to provide required press accreditation and visas to at least three foreign journalists with European media outlets. A reporter with a leading European television station said he has yet to receive accreditation despite following all of the procedures. The authorities denied accreditation to Regis Gente, a journalist with Radio France Internationale who has been based in the South Caucasus reporting news stories on Azerbaijan since 2002. A third journalist denied accreditation works for a major European news media outlet.