Hostages in Their Own Country
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Heydar Aliyev International Airport. He approaches the security check, lays his phone, his watch, and his belt in the plastic box which disappear through the metal detector.  No beep, everything is fine. He picks up the objects surfacing on the other side of the machine, and walks towards the checkin desk. He hands over his luggage, picks up the boarding pass and heads to passport control. There is a long line. He waits quietly his turn. When it comes, the border officer asks him to look in the camera, "You cannot leave," he says.

 

Heydar Aliyev International Airport. He approaches the security check, lays his phone, his watch, and his belt in the plastic box which disappear through the metal detector.  No beep, everything is fine. He picks up the objects surfacing on the other side of the machine, and walks towards the checkin desk. He hands over his luggage, picks up the boarding pass and heads to passport control. There is a long line. He waits quietly his turn. When it comes, the border officer asks him to look in the camera, "You cannot leave," he says.

It is a slap in the face for Mehman Huseynov. The 26-year-old blogger and human rights’ activist is on the government’s travel ban, essentially stuck in his own country. He shares this fate with his lawyer, Asabali Mustafayev, and dozens of others.

The Government of Azerbaijan signed and ratified a broad range of human rights’ charters - from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the European Convention on Human Rights - and is member of international organizations committed to advocacy and protection of freedom of expression, press, and movement. Azerbaijan is a state party of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, hence bound to its provisions, including article 12 which states that “everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his or her own.”

However, what is stated on paper is rarely implemented in Azerbaijan. Authorities have developed a wide range of resources to limit the freedom and the activity of independent journalists, activists, human rights defenders as well as members of opposition parties - from harassment to pressure on the family, from surveillance to detention. The travel ban is one of the measures and, according to human rights’ lawyer Elchin Sadiqov, there are currently 25 people who are are officially forbidden to expatriate.

The travel ban charges are applied on Khadija Ismayilova, a famous investigative reporter who revealed the secret business and properties of presidential family. In 2014, Ismayilova was sentenced to seven and a half years on tax evasion, abuse of power and incitement to suicide. She was released in May 2016, but is “being kept” as a hostage in her own country.  

 

Huseynov is one of Azerbaijan’s most well-known bloggers - his personal Facebook profile has 148,961 followers while his satirical blog “Sancaq (a pin) Production” is one the country’s most popular pages on the social platform with 266,062 fans, and counting.

His work often put human rights’ abuses under the spotlight. In 2012, on the eve of the Eurovision Song contest in Baku, he documented the forced evictions and demolition of houses the authorities decided on, that were in connection to the event. The report earned him fame on social media but he was charged of hooliganism and detained for 24 hours. A year later, ahead of the presidential election, he released the satiric video “300 Spartans” about the presidential candidates. He ended up behind bars again for a few hours.

His activism spilled over Azerbaijan’s borders. In June 2013 Huseynov, along with journalist Takhmina Tagizadeh, was awarded the Gerd Bucerius Free Press of Eastern Europe Award from the Fritt Ord Foundation and the ZEIT Foundation, for his selfless coverage of serious problems as corruption and human rights in Azerbaijan. The young blogger was due to receive the prize in a ceremony in Oslo, Norway.

 

Huseynov was excited, as it would have been his first visit to Norway and he planned to travel with his 69-year-old mother, Firangiz Huseynova. However, only his mother managed to take off.

"The prosecutor-general’s office told me I could travel and attend. I informed him one month before the flight and then again a few hours before. I was given permission. But when I  arrived at the passport control, my mother crossed and I was stopped,’ he recalls. “Policemen came, stood between me and her and they handcuffed me. They thought I was fleeing the country. My mum wanted to come back, but I did not let her do it."

While Firangiz Huseynova received the prize, Huseynov watched the ceremony online. The presentation award explained that the blogger was under pressure for his activism, that he was imposed a travel ban and that in 2012 a criminal case was opened against him for “resisting the authorities to prevent a breach of public order.” 

Asabali Mustafayev, who along with Huseynov represents various other young activists, has been unable to leave the country since the beginning of 2015.

In April 2014 a number of investigations on tax evasion was launched against NGOs in Azerbaijan and Mustafayev's Democracy and Human Rights Resource Center was on the list. No charges were filed, but a few months later the 65-year-old attorney found himself stuck in Azerbaijan and his bank assets frozen.

"In August 2014 I attended the meeting of OSCE in Poland. When I came back I was unofficially told that I was on the travel ban list," he recalls. And at the beginning of 2015 he was prevented to travel to Tbilisi.

According to the legislation, the travel ban can be applied to individuals with pending criminal cases, serving military service, and with ongoing prophylactic vaccination. It does not apply to civil activism, journalism, or human rights’ advocacy and activity. “So it means this ban [as applied] is illegal," Mustafayev notes.

 

In 2015, three Azerbaijani journalists contributing to Meydan TV, traveled back to their homes from Ukraine. They were delivered to the Police department of the airport and during several hours were questioned about Meydan Tv.

On September 19-20’s night, Ayten Farhadova, Sevinj Vagifgizi and Izolda Agayeva did not have a soft landing back in Azerbaijan after a trip to Ukraine. The three journalists working with Meydan TV, an independent media outlet based in Germany, were taken into police custody upon returning to Baku.

"I had talked with my son before leaving Ukraine and promised him to come home quickly,” remembers Farhadova. “We were all well aware of the pressure on us, but we were only thinking about arriving home after the the journey.“

She did not return home quickly. Instead, Farhadova and her two colleagues ended up spending the night in the Department of Combating Organized Crime.

"While in Ukraine, Shirin Abbasov, another Meydan TV journalist in Azerbaijan, was detained. I expected the same treatment,” she explains. ”But I did not expect that it would start from the airport.”

Meydan TV is a thorn in the government’s side. Founded in 2013 by Emin Milli, a human rights activist and dissident now living in Germany, the station is highly critical of the Azerbaijani authorities and the ruling elite. Its journalists are under constant pressure and subject of threats. On April 22, 2016 authorities opened a criminal investigation into the TV station for illegal business, large-scale tax evasion and abuse of power resulting in falsification of elections and/or referendum results. The case against Meydan TV’s executives was filed by the General Prosecutor Office of Grave Crimes Investigation Department. Milli said in a statement that "our only ‘crime’ is to use the right of freedom of speech." Meydan Tv is still under the investigation, involving 15 media outlet’s contributors.

 

 

Both Asabali Mustafayev and journalist Aytan Farhadova appealed to the court against what they call the “illegal travel ban." Huseynov cannot enjoy this right. His passport was confiscated, as well as his national ID card and without these documents he is prevented from doing anything - having a lawyer, continuing his education, receiving medical assistance.

When he asked to be allowed to leave the country for a medical check abroad he received another “no.”

"I even stated that I would put my apartment down as a guarantee. It didn’t work. I will never ask them again."

The travel ban hinders the professional development of the people on the black list as they routinely have to turn down invitations to conferences and events abroad. Farhadova states that offers no longer come in as organizers are aware of the ban and don’t even bother anymore.

A lot of people affected, wish they could at least travel to Tbilisi, in neighboring Georgia, where friends as well as colleagues in the same circle of human rights and civil activism are based.

But once a name is blacklisted, even Tbilisi is an impossible destination.

 

Chai Khana
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