Five things to remember about Azerbaijan

This week eight young Azerbaijani activists were sentenced to between six and eight years in jail. The members of the N!DA Youth Movement, which works for democracy and social change, were convicted for possession of drugs and explosives, and for intending to “cause public disorder”. The charges are widely believed to be trumped up, and the trials have been criticised by foreign observers over “irregularities” and “shortcomings”, including inconsistencies in testimonies and mishandling of evidence.

This is just the latest addition to a long list of human rights abuses by authorities in the oil rich country. As the repression has largely been allowed to take place away from international attention, this is a good moment to remember a few things about Azerbaijan, especially as the country prepares to take over a six month chairmanship of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers.

1) The six are far from the only political prisoners in Azerbaijan

(Image: Aziz Karimov)

(Image: Aziz Karimov)

According to the latest figures, there are 142 political prisoners in Azerbaijan today. These include human rights defenders, youth activists, and a large number of religious activists, among others. There are currently 17 people serving life sentences. Ahead of the country’s presidential election last October, candidate Ilgar Mammadov was arrested. In March, he was sentenced to seven years in prison for “organizing mass disturbances” and “resisting the police”. Meanwhile, President Ilham Aliyev insists that there are no political prisoners in Azerbaijan.

2) You may escape imprisonment, but you could still face violence and intimidation


(Image: Aziz Karimov)

Attacks, threats and intimidation are regular occurrences for political opponents, activists and press in Azerbaijan. Following protests in the capital Baku as Aliyev secured his third consecutive term in power last October, demonstrators were beaten and detained by police. Police also raided the offices of independent Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Centre (EMDSC) which reported irregularities in the election. In 2012, reporter Idrak Abbasov was brutally beaten when filming the demolition of a house by the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan, allegedly by employees of the company and police. The same year, fellow journalist Khadija Ismayilova, known for covering corruption among the country’s powerful elite, was blackmailed with intimate images of her and her boyfriend. She continues to face intimidation today. These abuses are often allowed to happen with impunity

3) Independent and critical media are under threat

Rahim Haciyev, deputy editor-in-chief of Azerbaijani newspaper Azadliq (Photo: Alex Brenner for Index on Censorship)

(Image: Alex Brenner for Index on Censorship)

Azerbaijan’s critical press have long been subjected to an array of attacks. Independent news outlets face economic sanctions, and are often barred from distribution networks. Some 70% of distribution is controlled by the government. Most of the nine national TV channels are either directly owned by the state or controlled by the authorities. Journalists also fall victim to legal threats. In the first six months of 2013, 36 defamation suits were brought against media outlets or journalists, four of which were criminal defamation suits. One victim of this hugely restrictive media environment is leading independent paper and Index Award winner Azadliq. The paper has been hit with £52,000 worth of fines following defamation suits, state-owned press distribution company Gasid has not been transferring payments that reflect the paper’s sales. Azadliq claims Gasid owe them some £44,000. 

4) Authorities are on an ongoing PR mission

(Image: Zeljko Joksimovic/Wikimedia Commons)

(Image: Zeljko Joksimovic/Wikimedia Commons)

While the situation inside the country shifts between bad and worse, authorities have focused their attentions on a wide-reaching international PR campaign. Ahead of hosting the Eurovision Song Contest, authorities ordered urban renewal that saw houses demolished and families evicted. Vast sums have in recent years been poured into the radical regeneration and beautification of Baku, and there’s more to come. There is also the posh London bar Baku, owned by the Aliyevs; the glossy, internationally distributed Baku magazine, edited by first daughter Leyla and co-published by Conde Nast; and the sponsorship deal with Champions League finalists Atlético Madrid. Next year, Baku will again play host to a prestigious international event — the inaugural European Games

5) They are about to take charge of one of Europe’s most important human rights bodies

(Image: Sandro Weltin/Council of Europe)

(Image: Sandro Weltin/Council of Europe)

“The Committee of Ministers supervises the execution of judgments of the European Court of Human Rights the Council of Europe…The Committee of Ministers’ essential function is to ensure that member states comply with the judgments and certain decisions of the European Court of Human Rights,” the Council of Europe declare on their website. Next week Azerbaijan will assume the chairmanship of this very Committee of Ministers. But one could say that COE is only sticking to form in its relationship with the country. Only last year, a majority in its Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) voted down a resolution on the existence of political prisoners in Azerbaijan. 

This article was originally published on 8 May 2014 at

Baku magazine and the tale of two Azerbaijans

Earlier editions of Baku magazine

Earlier editions of Baku magazine

The contrast is stark. On one hand, you’ve got Azadliq — Azerbaijan’s leading independent newspaper — balancing on the brink of bankruptcy. Known for its critical coverage of the country’s repressive regime, led by President Ilham Aliyev (in a role he essentially inherited from his father Heydar), the paper has been under continuous economic attacks by the government. Defamation cases and payments being held back, among others things, have left the paper in serious danger of folding.

On the other hand, there’s Baku — the art and culture magazine with an Azerbaijani twist, brainchild of Aliyev’s daughter Leyla and co-published by Conde Nast —  which recently celebrated its second birthday. A magazine so expensively produced it has its own special font probably doesn’t need to concern itself too much with sales figures and turnover.

The birthday bash was held at “vibrant Baku night spot Pacifico”, where “the champagne flowed and the band played into the night” and guests “toasted the title’s success”. I know this because I recently got my hands on issue 10 of the magazine, which hit the newsstands last week. The party was heavily featured in the society section, which also included appearances by Leyla herself, her sister Arzu and mother and First Lady Mehriban.

Somewhat ironically, I found a stack at an Index event exhibiting the work of Azerbaijani photographers capturing some of the country’s many protests.  They were probably kindly donated by the representatives from the Azerbaijani embassy, who popped along to the event.

At first glance, Baku magazine seems like your typical glossy, upmarket mag, promoting the sort of grossly decadent lifestyle most of us would never come within a gold cobbled country mile of. However, it doesn’t take many page turns to sense that something is a bit off.

One of the first things that hits you is the near-obsession between creating links between Azerbaijan and the most glamorous, posh and high-culture aspects of western countries. “Walking along the Boulevard, the wide, tree-lined esplanade that sweeps the length of Baku’s Caspian seafront, is probably quite similar to walking along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, during the cooler months,” coos Leyla Aliyeva, who also holds the role of Editor-in-Chief, in her Editor’s letter. There is also the feature on the country’s new ski resort, Shahdag. “Sure, it’s not Les Trois Vallees”, the article says. But you can still tuck into Tskian, “the Azerbaijani equivalent of a French alpine tartiflette”. While it is far from the only country to indulge in a bit of self-promotion, the idea of selling Azerbaijan as a modern, glamorous it-spot, seems to permeate the whole publication to a slightly comical extent. But considering they have in the past hired western PR companies to help polish the country’s international image, I guess this is to be expected.

It is further reflected in the editorial staff, filled with Darrens, Marias, Carolines and Simons. For a magazine about Azerbaijan, it doesn’t seem to have many actual Azerbaijanis working for it. Granted, supply might be a bit sparse, as there are a number of journalists among the country’s (at least) 142 political prisoners. Perhaps potential employees are afraid of being blackmailed, like investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova? Or brutally attacked, like reporter Idrak Abbasov? Or maybe it’s because most of Azerbaijan’s media is otherwise engaged in state-controlled media?

Anyway, it is not surprising that a magazine called Baku, whose USP is Azerbaijan, focuses on all things, well, Azerbaijan. Some tenuous links are drawn, like the article suggesting that jewellery designer to the stars Loree Rodkin’s new collection will be inspired by Azerbaijan, essentially based on nice things she said at an exhibition in Baku. The interview with musical prodigy Nazrin Rashidova, who was born in the country, is only really jarring if you know that musicians, like Jamal Ali, who have dared criticise President Aliyev have allegedly been tortured by the police.

However, there are sections that seem to leave all pretence at the door, and go full on into that strange subtle-yet-obvious mode of PR-managed propaganda. The eight-page ode to Baku’s controversial beautification and modernisation project, under the guise of an interview with designer behind much of it, is issue 10’s most striking example. In fawning terms, it discusses the type of urban renewal that saw houses demolished and families evicted in the lead-up to the Eurovision Song Contest, hosted in the capital in 2012. We also get previews of yet-to-be unveiled treats. The Port Baku development, opening this spring, “is set to become the city’s premier luxury address” with “flagship stores from the world’s leading fashion brands” and exclusive apartments with “access to a 3000sq m leisure club and spa”. There are also plans to transform “a former power station complex into three destination restaurants and a nightclub.” And it goes on and on. A separate article announces the opening of the Fairmont hotel in one of the city’s Flame Towers. The 36-floor hotel will boast “Baku’s first French Bistro”.

It’s a dedicated effort to shift international attention away from corruption, poverty and the continuing attacks on human rights. But while this attempt to paint Azerbaijan as a harmonious and modern hot-spot might work for some, juxtaposed against the actual goings-on in the country, Baku magazine also manages to highlight the vast gulf between the life the regime and its elite circles lead, and the struggle of those fighting for democracy. In some ways, it is a very tangible symbol of the two Azerbaijans.

To buy a copy of the autumn issue of Index on Censorship, featuring work by some of Azerbaijan’s most brave photojournalists, click here

This article was published on 20 Dec, 2013 at