Elnur Majidli a Strasbourg-based blogger and internet activist has been threatened with a 12 year jail sentence for ‘inciting hatred’. Index on Censorship’s Mike Harris interviewed Elnur at the Council of Europe as part of Index and the International Partnership Group for Azerbaijan’s lobbying efforts
Sitting in a coffee shop at the Council of Europe, Elnur Majidli proudly shows off on his netbook the Facebook groups that started the rare public protests in Azerbaijan on 11 March — “the Great People’s Day” — and are now being used to organise further protests. Tens of thousands of Azerbaijani citizens are members of the groups that Elnur administers, which has led the Ministry of Security to set-up a special Facebook team to monitor web activists.
Elnur may well be the team’s first target. On 1 April, plain clothes police officers turned up at his family home. He sighs: “They behaved as if it was an anti-terrorist operation.” On the same day, his father and two cousins were interrogated. All were taken to a police station and his father subjected to questions for 8 hours. Detentions were made not just in Baku, but in two other regions.
Elnur’s family are being punished for the sins of their son, In a way that recalls the country’s Soviet past. His father has been “made redundant” from his job with state shipping firm Caspar. When he asked how many other employees were being made redundant in a firm with 80 ships, the answer from his foreman was “none”.
His mother works at a school and was called to the district education department, where it was made clear that the authorities are putting pressure on the school to fire her. Elnur adds: “My mother has been off sick from work due to stress and sickness. She has been refused medical treatment by the State after pressure was put on hospital doctors.”
Elnur himself has now received notification he is to be prosecuted for “inciting national, ethnic or religious hatred” under article 283.1 of the criminal code for his Facebook activity. As he lives in Strasbourg, the Serious Crimes Investigation Department notified his father of the investigation. Elnur is now in exile — if he returns to Azerbaijan he could face up to 12 years in prison.
Since the prosecution began he has received five anonymous phone calls (“three over the internet”, he adds) which he has reported to the French police. The Azerbaijani authorities put out an Interpol request for his arrest which the French authorities have refused to action. But Elnur says the real motive of the government in raising the possibility of a prosecution is to neutralise his threat: “The most important thing the government is concerned about is that I stay out of Azerbaijan.”
His Facebook associates are accused of being pro-Armenian, which is akin to treason in Azerbaijan, where the Nagorno-Karabakh territorial dispute colours all politics. State TV now regularly depicts Facebook users as mentally ill. But Elnur is resolute: “Threats should not scare us against our struggle.”
He dismisses the accusation that net activists are in league with foreign forces: “Of course not. This is our state. The only change we want is to chance the government through elections.”
Freedom of expression in Azerbaijan has been severely curtailed in recent years. Cases such as the detention of editor Eynulla Fatullayev have reminded journalists of the limits to free expression. Fatullayev has been in prison since 20 April 2007 following his publication of a series of articles critical of the Azerbaijani authorities. In April last year, the European Court of Human Rights issued a judgment regarding Fatullayev’s convictions on charges of defamation, supporting terrorism and inciting ethnic hatred. The Court found these convictions violated his right to freedom of expression and called for his immediate release and compensation. His lawyer, Rashid Hajili, was awarded the Bindmans Law and Campaigning Award at the 2010 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards for his work defending Fatullayev.
In November 2010 the Azerbaijani Supreme Court quashed the charges of defamation, terrorism, and incitement of ethnic hatred. Nevertheless, Mr Fatullayev remains in prison after the Azerbaijani authorities sentenced him to two and a half years’ imprisonment for possession of drugs on 6 July 2010 — three months after the European Court ruling was made. The sentence came after prison officials allegedly found heroin in his clothing in December 2009. Index believes this charge to be politically motivated and based on fabricated evidence, intended to keep Fatullayev in prison despite the European Court’s decision in his case.
Last week, free expression campaigners gathered outside the Azerbaijan embassy in to call for the immediate and unconditional release of Fatullayev. About 50 protesters attended the demonstration organised by Index on Censorship, Amnesty International UK, ARTICLE 19, English PEN and the Media Diversity Institute. A similar protest took place in Paris. Activists marked the fourth anniversary of Fatullayev’s imprisonment expressed solidarity with the scores of Azerbaijani citizens who have been arrested, attacked and harassed in recent weeks.
Elnur Majidli continues his online activity which has provided a focus for the Azerbaijani diaspora. His recent tweets are focused on the practical as the arrests continue:
“Activists – Etibar Salmanli, Orkhan Bayramli, Fuad Hajiyev, Rufat Abdullayev were beaten and detained.They need lawyer. #azerbaijan”