Challenges to human rights in Azerbaijan as European Games begin

Baku 2015

As corruption scandals related to international soccer continue to put pressure on FIFA, world governments, and companies in the sports industry, Azerbaijan is preparing to host a major international event: the first-ever European Games. The lack of human rights protections in Azerbaijan — online and offline — poses a threat to people living there, as well to journalists and others visiting to watch the games.

In this post, we take a look at the digital rights landscape in Azerbaijan, and the implications for people who may be at risk for human rights violations.

A rocky road for human rights leading up to the games

Europe’s new “multisport extravaganza” starts tomorrow, and the host country has spared no expense in preparing for it. That’s not surprising, given that this type of international event is often exploited as a tool for self-legitimization by oppressive regimes. Unfortunately, we often see people who oppose these efforts suffer significant consequences. In fact, in  2012 when Azerbaijan hosted the Eurovision Song Contest, forced evictions were carried out in the name of “urban regeneration.” There were subsequent crackdowns on peaceful protests that led to disturbing human rights abuses. And in 2009, Azerbaijani citizens were arbitrarily detained and interrogated when secret services monitored their SMS messages and discovered that they had voted for the wrong Eurovision contestants  Armenians.

Last year, human rights groups such as Committee to Protect Journalists and Index on Censorship increased their efforts to call attention to the number of journalists and activists that are being held prisoner in Azerbaijan on unfair, politically motivated charges. Now people all around the world are taking notice and have begun to speak out on social media, hijacking the hashtag #HelloBaku  created by the European Games organizers for promotional purposes  to raise awareness about the host country’s record of human rights abuses.

Journalists, bloggers imprisoned for exercising fundamental freedoms

Azerbaijan likely has more journalists and netizens in prison than any other former Soviet republic. Bloggers are sentenced frequently, and with what appear to be politically motivated and manipulated charges. The situation has drawn the attention of Michael Forst, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, who published a statement last week urging the government to release human rights activists who are in prison for exercising their fundamental freedoms.

The Special Rapporteur is far from alone in his concern. Since 2009, Freedom House has identified Azerbaijan as “Partly Free” in its annual Freedom on the Net report, and every year since it has earned a gradually worsening score. When Azerbaijan hosted the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in 2012, it was heavily criticized for its lack of press freedoms and digital rights, most prominently in an open letter in which Azerbaijani writer Emin Milli stated that “the Internet is not free in Azerbaijan.”

Not long after hosting the IGF, the Azerbaijan national assembly nevertheless passed a law to extend defamation and insult offenses to cover online content, creating a chilling effect for free expression online. In 2013 when the country had highly contentious presidential elections, the results of the election were released on a mobile app before the vote actually took place. The election was subsequently deemed seriously flawed. The government’s efforts to silence dissent have gone so far as to flout a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights demanding the immediate release of opposition leader Ilgar Mammadov.

Social media takes on heightened importance

Because Azerbaijan is one of the ten most censored countries in the world, the internet and social media have a critical role for disseminating information. Popular figures such as Hebib Muntezir have garnered thousands of followers on Facebook and Twitter, and arrests in recent government crackdowns are being live-blogged.

Sadly, it appears that the government is fighting back through surveillance. In 2014, a groundbreaking Citizen Lab report revealed that Azerbaijan is one of 21 countries that use Remote Control System (RCS), the mass surveillance technology developed and sold by the Italian company Hacker Team. According to Citizen Lab, the system allows governments to intercept “a target’s encrypted internet communications, copy files from a computer’s hard disk, record Skype calls, emails, instant messages, and passwords typed into a web browser, turn on a device’s webcam and microphone.” Citizen Lab research also showed that the RCS endpoint in Azerbaijan was “active in the pre and post-election period.

Where do we go from here?

Major sports events seem to be a crucible for digital rights. Russia perpetrated extreme and intrusive surveillance methods  including deep packet inspection  during the 2014 Sochi games. Turkey’s implementation of the controversial e-ticketing system Passolig for football games requires submission of your personal data. It’s important to stay vigilant, and whenever possible, speak out against these kinds of attacks on users’ rights.

Meanwhile, if you are based in or visiting Azerbaijan, we strongly encourage you to take the time to ensure the security of your communications devices. If you’re not sure how to do that, take a look at our post on best practices for digital security, which we published to help people prepare for our most recent RightsCon conference. In addition, feel free to contact us at [email protected]