- Text by Cormac O'Brien
Documentary filmmaker Liz Mermin travelled to Baku, capital city of Azerbaijan, in 2012 to investigate the human rights abuse and political corruption in the shadow of the Eurovision Song Contest.
This week Radio Free Europe reporter Khadija Ismayilova, (who featured in Liz’s documentary) was arrested for unexplained charges of incitement to suicide, with two months detainment pre-trial. Always outspoken about corruption in Azerbaijan, Khadija has already been subject to both blackmail and threats and could now face up to seven years in prison. This has been one in a series of arrests of voices critical of the Azeri government.
Hailed as the first democratic Muslim republic, oppositional party meetings and public protest are in effect banned in Azerbaijan, while the affluent Aliyev family have held power from the Soviet era (1969 -1982) to the current day.
Huck spoke to Liz about the political climate in Azerbaijan, Khadija’s cause and why Europe remains silent.
Khadija is one of the most prominent interviewees in your film Amazing Azerbaijan, can you talk more about her story?
Khadija is a reporter with Radio Free Europe. When we met her she was working on a big investigation about who had profited from the deals to build “Flag Square”, a giant park in Baku. Unsurprisingly it turned out to be the president’s family (BBC’s Panorama show on Eurovision and Azerbaijan presented this finding as its own, but it came from Khadija). One day she received a package containing photos of her and her boyfriend having sex, along with a note calling her a “whore” and telling her to stop or she would be “defamed”. She discovered that video surveillance cameras had been planted in her flat. She wrote about it on Facebook, and soon after a video of her and her boyfriend having sex was posted on the internet. Khadija is from a conservative Muslim family, so this was rather more serious than it might be in London. She went on to win various journalism awards and her international profile rose, but if anything that made her situation more precarious – and her friends have been scared for her for a long time. When we did our last interview for the film she said she was determined to keep doing her job, knowing the risks, because somebody has to tell the truth about the government’s business dealings. Her reports, and her work with young journalists, must have placed her fairly high up on the official least favoured list.
There were more detentions, threats, and small charges, but they didn’t stop her working. And then on December 5, 2014, Khadija was arrested and charged with “inciting someone to attempt suicide”. She has been given two months of pre-trial detention and faces up to seven years if found guilty. The day before her arrest, the president’s chief of staff published a massive essay in which he accused Khadija of treason.
And a particularly shameful side-note: when I heard about Khadija’s arrest I went to look at her Facebook page, because she used that as a platform for all her work. It had been taken down. Facebook stands up for the rights of its users when pressed by governments to crack down on incitations to terrorism, but it can’t stand up to the Azeris? What is going on?
Why are journalists like Khadija Ismaliyova needed in Azerbaijan?
There aren’t a lot of investigative journalists in Azerbaijan – it’s a dangerous business. Journalists and bloggers are threatened, randomly beaten up, arrested, and some have been killed. It’s especially dangerous if you investigate big government business deals, which seem – as Khadija’s work did – to lead back to President Ilham Aliyev and his family.
So there are very few investigative journalists in Azerbaijan – not only because it’s so dangerous, but also because there is so little independent press, and there’s no way to make a living. Also, if you cross the government in Azerbaijan, it’s not just yourself you endanger: it’s your entire family. Activists we met making the film had fathers, brothers and fathers-in-law threatened. Some lost their jobs. Most of these activists have left the country. There are still protest movements, but they are dealt with harshly. Their leaders are arrested to scare off others. In a climate like this, how are people to know what is true and what isn’t? Without well-trained journalists and an independent media, the truth is what the government wants it to be. That’s not just a recipe for dictatorship, it’s a curse for the generation that grows up with no sense of truth, power, citizenship. People who question the party line are punished (not given places at schools, not offered jobs, etc). It’s all very Soviet – unsurprisingly, as it’s a former Soviet republic.
The president’s statements to the Azeri people repeatedly refer to “enemies” who hate their country and must be “sick” representing outside interests. The rhetoric is really scary if you know the people he is talking about.
Why we should care? Azerbaijan has Europe wrapped around its finger. They have lots of oil, they are a secular Muslim state sharing a border with Iran, and they wave the threat of Islamic extremism and lack of access to their black gold as a way to keep Europe and America in line. They have also been accused, in a very convincing report by the European Stability Initiative, of simply buying politicians (particularly members of the Council of Europe) off with big jars of caviar and lavish trips and gifts. They were CHAIR of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe this year –- even though they didn’t let the Council’s rapporteur in to investigate accusations about political prisoners. When you think of the young people being tortured in prison for peaceful protests or satires against the government, it is sickening.
You filmed Amazing Azerbaijan during the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, what was the experience of travelling to Azerbaijan like? What is life like for the citizens of Azerbaijan?
We were allowed in to film preparations for Eurovision, and we went there to get the party line on European values – what it means to Azerbaijan to be part of the “European family.” They didn’t quite know what to make of us, and most of the interviews we were promised never came to pass, but we did speak with several government supporters who made the case the way the government makes it; that is, we are a young democracy, you can’t expect us to be perfect, give us time, we’re not so bad, and besides, you should really be criticising our enemy, Armenia, why does no one pick on them? We heard a lot of that. And we heard from “ordinary” Azeris (in a manner of speaking) by interviewing aspiring Eurovision contestants, who told us that Azerbaijan was a “magical place”. We were questioned about what we were doing and why, and since our driver was provided by our host (the TV station hosting Eurovision) they knew what we were doing. But the driver was a lovely man and I doubt his reports were particularly detailed. We were basically free to do as we liked, and we didn’t push the limits because we knew we had interviews with activists lined up outside the country. Shortly before we went another filmmaker had had his footage seized at the airport, so I didn’t want to rock the boat: I wanted to hear what the government had to say for itself. That was scary enough.
That said the people we met were all welcoming and friendly and no one said anything overtly negative. The juxtaposition between blatant tacky wealth and poverty behind the facades was disturbing, but alas we are growing used to that in this day and age.. Khadija put it best when she described downtown Baku as a “belt of happiness” – all the poverty and struggle is hidden behind high walls and facades. I found Baku profoundly depressing. The young Eurovision worker who guided us loved it because he saw it as the “next Dubai”, which is perhaps the only city I find more depressing than Baku.
This isn’t an isolated incident. Khadija is just one of many people featured in the documentary who’ve undergone persecution by agents of the Azerbaijani government. Can you tell us more about them?
Rasul Jafarov, an activist and founder of the “Sing For Democracy” campaign (he spoke at one of our screenings) was arrested at the start of August this year on a cocktail of charges and remains in pre-trial detention. And of the people we featured in the film, only two are still in Azerbaijan. One has stopped speaking out about politics (I suspect because of the consequences for his family – he already spent a year in prison for making a satirical video that didn’t even mention the president) and the other, Khadija, is in prison. Another person we met, who helped us with distribution, is also in prison for his activist work. Anyone who raises their head above the parapet is in danger, whether you’re a journalist, an activist, or simply with an NGO. I fear that as Russia drifts further from the West, they will embolden their ally, Azerbaijan, to become even more ruthless and care even less about international opinion. Azerbaijan has already dismissed US State Department criticism of Khadija’s arrest by calling her a spy serving their interests. Given this language, we have real reason to fear for her life.
The European Games are set to take place in Baku in 2015, why hasn’t there been stronger international outcry about the actions of the Azerbaijani government?
There has’t been outcry because no one is paying attention. The European Games are an absolute joke – Azerbaijan basically invented these. Is it to boost their international image, as they tried to do with Eurovision, or to hand out more lucrative building contracts to companies owned by the President’s family? I’ll leave you to guess.
We live in a world with so many crises: Syria, Ukraine, IS, unresolved wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Ebola, Egypt, DRC, South Sudan, and on and on and on. I was talking with one activist the other day and he said that everyone is keen to support independent journalism in Georgia and the Ukraine but no one cares about Azerbaijan. I tried to pitch stories on Azerbaijan to BBC and Channel 4 and though the individuals I spoke with were fascinated, the general feeling was the audiences wouldn’t care, and the pitches went nowhere.
What can we do to support Khadija and people like her?
I’m not sure, is the honest answer. Get informed and keep following it is the first step – the only thing we can do is not forget. This amazing website – created by independent investigative media program The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) – is full of information. Their advice of what you can do to help is to keep writing about Azerbaijan, so that Khadija is not alone and her work goes on. Support Facebook and Twitter campaigns (links are on the site); and write to the Azeri ambassador in your country. And more conventionally, Amnesty, PEN, and the Committee to Protect Journalists all have campaigns around journalists and prisoners’ of conscience in Azerbaijan. Being part of those movements is important. And if you’re in the media, keep pushing to cover stories like this now, as the crises build, rather than waiting for the country to fall off the precipice into full-fledged news-worthy disaster. I’m sure there is more to be done. I’m a filmmaker and not an activist but Khadija’s arrest reminds me that we all need to give public voice to our outrage, so it can be felt and go somewhere beyond our heads, homes, and pubs.