The ghosts of Baku

Rebecca Vincent 05.01.2016

Rebecca Vincent was forced out of Azerbaijan, the country she loved, because of her human rights work. But the journalists and activists she left behind in the "land of fire" suffered far worse fates

1. "A party at a jazz club triggered my deportation"

The fourteenth of December 2012 began just as any other Friday would. I pottered around my flat in Baku, Azerbaijan, where I was living with my husband and our then-17 month-old son. I fed my son his porridge for breakfast, and started packing. That day, we were heading back to the UK for a much-needed break over the holidays. Little did I know, it would be the last time I would lay eyes on Baku or set foot on Azerbaijani soil.

Busy with last-minute preparations for our trip, I had to pull out of a meeting to discuss the Art for Democracy campaign that my colleague Rasul Jafarov and I had launched just three days before. The Art for Democracy launch event – a party at the Baku Jazz Centre, featuring performances by a number of young alternative artists – had gone very well, and the campaign had already created quite a buzz around Baku.

A few days after we arrived back in the UK, my husband received an email from his employer, notifying him that the state migration service had revoked my residence permit. Not his, not my son’s, very specifically only mine – and with no explanation given.

The fact that I was targeted hardly came as a surprise. I had been known to the authorities for some time, having worked on human rights issues in Azerbaijan for over six years; first as a diplomat posted to the U.S. Embassy in Baku from 2006 to 2008, then as a human rights campaigner with the London-based freedom of expression organisation ARTICLE 19 for several years, later leaving to work directly with local rights groups in Baku.

Life in Baku is marked by contradictions – a melange of old and new architecture, or old buildings covered by new facades; signs of prosperous wealth in the face of extreme poverty; dissatisfaction among the population with policies creating personal hardship yet refusal to blame this on the ruling regime; an initial suspicion of foreigners but then some of the most generous hospitality I have ever experienced.

A swift bureaucratic act changed the course of my life

Azerbaijan is a complicated place. It’s a small, oil-rich country bordering the Caspian Sea, tucked between Russia and Iran. Since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Azerbaijan has been mainly controlled by the Aliyev family, first by former KGB official and member of the Soviet Politburo Heydar Aliyev, who served as president from 1993 to 2003, and then by his son, Ilham Aliyev, who succeeded his father just before his death. Ilham Aliyev is now serving his third term in office, having come to power through a series of dubious elections and clearing the way to remain in office indefinitely through a 2009 referendum removing the constitutional limitation to two presidential terms.

Part of what makes Azerbaijan complicated is the ruling regime’s growing hostility towards any perceived form of criticism or dissent. Citizens’ rights to the fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly, and association are under serious attack, along with a range of other basic human rights. The Azerbaijani government has supposedly committed to upholding citizens’ rights through a range of international agreements, and they are enshrined in Azerbaijan’s own constitution and laws, but in practice, there is simply no political will to protect and respect these rights. Azerbaijanis who attempt to express opinions critical of the authorities or share information that could be damaging to the ruling regime do so at great personal risk. My focus in Azerbaijan was supporting and amplifying the voices of these local journalists, human rights defenders, and activists.

It was not the fact that I was targeted, but the timing and the way it was done, that came as a shock. Not only had I not done anything illegal, I did not believe I had done anything sufficiently provocative during my time on the ground to be barred from the country. If anything, I felt I had been more visible during my years of campaigning at the international level. I was also surprised by how it had been done – a working-level phone call to a third party, with me finding out indirectly from an e-mail. I had always pictured deportation as a more dramatic affair. But after everything, it was a party at a jazz club that triggered my deportation. It was clear that the authorities simply would not tolerate me working directly with local human rights defenders.

Although I was never given an official explanation, diplomatic negotiations on my behalf later confirmed that the move was politically motivated. In President Ilham Aliyev’s Azerbaijan, the space for civil society was shrinking at an increasingly frantic pace, as authorities worked aggressively to silence the country’s few remaining critics – including my closest friends and colleagues. Mega events – like the Eurovision Song Contest in May 2012 and later the European Olympic Games in June 2015 – served only to accelerate repression, with particularly harsh crackdowns in the aftermath of these events, targeting those who dared to speak out during the brief moments of media attention.

In the early days of my departure, everything felt overwhelmingly unfinished. I had left my flat, my work, my life as they were, with every intention of returning. I had even neglected to make the bed as we were rushing out the door. The experience felt surreal, as if it were not actually happening to me. As I struggled to become re-accustomed to life in the UK, to get used to long and frequent periods of separation from my husband who returned to work in Baku, after months of feeling at risk, of experiencing the strange sort of paranoia that comes from living for extended periods with the full expectation of hostile state surveillance, of being sustained largely by adrenaline stemming from working side-by-side with my embattled local colleagues, it all felt anticlimactic. A swift bureaucratic act had changed the course of my life.

 2. The round-up

But while I was fighting the revocation of my residence permit, my colleagues in Azerbaijan were fighting battles of their own. Following our Art for Democracy launch event, campaign staff and supporters were persecuted, questioned by authorities in connection with our event, attacked in the local press, or pressured in other ways. At the same time, other pro-democracy groups were targeted for their roles in organising a series of protests responding to issues such as the high incidence of deaths of soldiers in non-combat situations – such as the NIDA civic movement, some of whose activists remain jailed nearly three years later. The authorities seemed determined to silence criticism and dissent ahead of the October 2013 presidential election, during which President Ilham Aliyev was running for a controversial third term in office.

I continued working with Rasul on the Art for Democracy campaign from abroad, as well as the other advocacy work of the campaign’s implementing organisation, the Human Rights Club. We did not anticipate the extent of the authorities’ backlash against Art for Democracy, which was a creative, positive campaign involving artists from all genres in human rights advocacy and democracy-promotion efforts. But the regime had reacted harshly to Art for Democracy’s predecessor, Sing for Democracy. The pro-government press smeared the campaign, making it clear that the regime viewed Art for Democracy, as it had Sing for Democracy before it, as “anti-Azerbaijani”.

In the run-up to the 2013 presidential election, the Human Rights Club worked extensively to compile a detailed list of political prisoners in Azerbaijan. I helped Rasul to publicise the list, which drew widespread international media coverage on the eve of the election, with a shocking total of 142 cases. Rasul and others continued updating, expanding, and adding detail to this list into 2014, past the point where I took maternity leave during a somewhat difficult twin pregnancy.

But before the consolidated list had even been published, those behind it became political prisoners themselves. On 30 July 2014, Leyla Yunus was arrested on charges of treason, fraud, forgery, tax evasion, and illegal entrepreneurship. That August, Rasul was arrested on charges of illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, and abuse of power. The same month, Leyla’s husband, historian and activist Arif Yunus, and Intigam Aliyev were both arrested on similar charges.

On 8 August, another friend, head of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS) Emin Huseynov, was forced into hiding when authorities raided and closed IRFS’ office. IRFS was the country’s leading freedom of expression organisation, and Emin was one of the most vocal Azerbaijanis engaged in international human rights advocacy. It later emerged that Emin had been granted refuge at the Swiss Embassy in Baku, and 10 harrowing months later he was finally allowed safe passage out of the country.

After the wave of arrests that August, investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova took up the work of our jailed colleagues. She was instrumental in finalising and publishing the consolidated list of political prisoners that now contained the names of our friends. At the same time, Khadija remained defiant in the face of threats of arrest and other increasing pressure against her. She continued her courageous work exposing corruption among Azerbaijan’s ruling elite, including the president’s family.

Khadija was finally arrested on 4 December 2014. The charges were ludicrous; she was accused of inciting a man, Tural Mustafayev, to attempt suicide. Mustafayev was a former colleague of Khadija’s, who later rescinded his testimony and withdrew his complaint against her. Khadija was later additionally charged with embezzlement, illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, and abuse of power. After eight months in pre-trial detention, Khadija stood trial from August to September 2015, and was eventually sentenced to 7.5 years’ imprisonment on the economic charges. She was acquitted of the charge of inciting Mustafayev to attempt suicide. On 25 November, the Court of Appeals upheld Khadija’s sentence, and she has since been transferred from pre-trial detention to prison.

The others – Rasul, Intigam, Leyla, and Arif – also received lengthy prison sentences for their fabricated cocktail of crimes. Rasul remains jailed despite the fact that he paid the tax debt the authorities alleged he owed – which resulted in the Court of Appeals reducing his 6.5-year sentence by only three months. Intigam also remains behind bars, suffering from health issues that merit his release on humanitarian grounds alone. Intigam’s imprisonment has served as a serious blow to the legal defence of human rights in Azerbaijan, as a dwindling number of lawyers remain willing to take on such risky cases.

Leyla and Arif both suffered from serious medical conditions that rapidly worsened in prison. Although the couple were eventually released on conditional sentences – Arif on 12 November and Leyla on 9 December – the more than 16 months they spent unjustly jailed took a serious toll, resulting in irreversible health issues posing a continued threat to Leyla’s life. In addition, she reported being tortured and mistreated in custody.

And that’s just imprisonment. The Azerbaijani regime employs a wide range of other tactics against its critics, both inside and outside of the country. Emin Huseynov, the IRFS director who took refuge at the Swiss Embassy in Baku, was stripped of his Azerbaijani nationality and remains a stateless person in political exile. While Emin is stuck abroad, his brother, a well-known blogger and photojournalist, Mehman Huseynov, is stuck inside Azerbaijan, where he has been subjected to a travel ban for more than two years on the basis of an old, politically motivated criminal case against him.

Relatives of those who dare to criticise the regime are increasingly targeted

In recent months, the staff of online independent television station Meydan TV have been particularly aggressively targeted, including Meydan TV Director Emin Milli, one of the most dedicated Azerbaijani dissidents I know. Emin reported receiving a threat from the Azerbaijani Minister of Youth and Sport in connection with Meydan TV’s critical coverage of the European Games in June, and has faced significant pressure ever since, as have his relatives. Families are not off-limits to the Azerbaijani authorities; relatives of those who dare to criticise the regime are increasingly targeted, in particular as a means of exerting pressure on exiles who remain active after they have left the country.

Violence is also used against government critics in Azerbaijan, particularly journalists. Tragically, a young reporter, Rasim Aliyev, who served as the legal chairman of IRFS after Emin Huseynov was forced into hiding, was killed this past August. Rasim died in hospital the day after he was attacked by a group connected to a football player Rasim had criticised on Facebook. The circumstances around his death remain murky, as Rasim had reported receiving threats prior, and unrelated to, the incident with the footballer. His murder sent shockwaves through local civil society.

I did not know Rasim well, but I remember him as always being there, one of the key figures at IRFS, ready with a camera whenever anything happened. I often think of his quiet, everyday heroism. I also remember the heroism of Rafig Tagi, another journalist who was murdered in Azerbaijan, in 2011. After observing Rafig’s own trial, which resulted in his imprisonment in 2007, I got to know him as we both observed other politically motivated trials after his release. Rafig considered it important to bear witness to these violations and show solidarity with the targeted journalists. Besides writing, Rafig also served as an emergency medical worker until he was brutally stabbed by unknown attackers and died in hospital a few days later.

As the years have passed, the pool of independent journalists and human rights defenders remaining in the country has shrunk to the point where anyone targeted now is likely to be a personal acquaintance of mine. That can make the work difficult to stomach at times.

3. The caged city

When I first moved to Baku in 2006, I was struck by the transience of the place. As a diplomat, I could sense the frustration of my local interlocutors, who had taken the time to get to know and explain their issues to many before me, and would do so with my successor, and theirs, and so on. Now I have worked on Azerbaijan long enough – nearly a decade – to experience some of the same frustrations as the locals. It is difficult to keep up with the personnel changes at foreign embassies and international organisations, to invest the energy in forming new relationships over and over again, starting from scratch explaining the issues and convincing them to care.

This transience extended to physical Baku – to the streets, to the buildings, whose names and purposes changed faster than anyone could keep up with, and later to entire neighbourhoods that were demolished and rebuilt in the name of beautification. Over the years, I grew to understand why locals referred to streets as their old Soviet names and gave directions based on landmarks rather than addresses. I began to think of places in terms of their former purposes as significant to me – 33 Khagani Street, for example, where I witnessed the Popular Front Party being evicted on a fateful day in November 2006 – and became sentimental about places that no longer existed – such as the Institute for Peace and Democracy’s office, where I drank tea with and got to know Leyla Yunus in my early days in Baku, before the building was later illegally demolished. These places, and too often their occupants, are now ghosts of a city at odds with itself.

Baku is the place I felt most alive, and I will mourn our separation however long it might last

People sometimes ask me if I miss Baku – a question also frequently posed to my exiled Azerbaijani friends and colleagues. On the one hand, of course I do, immensely. To be barred access from the place that has has such a profound impact, that has shaped me both personally and professionally, that has become an intrinsic part of the fabric of my life, still stings deeply. Baku is the place I felt most alive, and I will mourn our separation however long it might last.

But ultimately, the Baku that I know and love simply no longer exists. I cannot picture a Baku without my friends living in freedom and going about their daily lives. I cannot fathom a Baku without Khadija on the air from her studio at the Caspian Plaza, without the IRFS office buzzing with the coming and going of young journalists and human rights defenders, without so many of the friends I would drink tea and eat qutab with and laugh into the Caspian night air. The Baku that is left is a stranger to me. Its rapidly proliferating modern buildings look to me to be caging the city in the same way the bars in the prisons are caging my friends.

At the start of 2016, Azerbaijan was holding dozens of political prisoners including the country’s most prominent journalists and human rights defenders. Independent media had been all but eliminated, and civil society remained largely paralysed. Much of the international community continues to prioritise other interests in Azerbaijan – namely energy – over human rights and democracy, and has failed to take sufficient action to hold the Aliyev regime accountable. However, the unprecedented ongoing repression is beginning to have serious consequences for Azerbaijan’s international relations, with the possibility of targeted sanctions against Azerbaijani officials being discussed at the European Parliament and in the US Congress. So far though, the Azerbaijani authorities continue their crackdown unabated, seemingly determined to silence the country's few remaining critical voices.

Like so many others before me, now I, too, am a ghost of Baku. But rather than haunting, it is me who is haunted by memories and dreams of my dear friends and colleagues whose stories I am trying to tell by telling my own.

Rebecca Vincent is a human rights activist and former U.S. diplomat who has been working on Azerbaijan for nearly 10 years. She is currently the coordinator of the Sport for Rights campaign