Darkness Falling – 100 days in Azerbaijan

20 Oct 2015 admin

Today the appeal trial of Leyla and Arif Yunus continues in Azerbaijan. As it does James Marriott reflects on 100 days in Azerbaijan.

For over 100 days I have been away from the hum of collective life in Platform, away from the buzz of e-mails and twitter, away from the news feed darting this way and that. On returning I dig through the records of events and try to piece together what has happened.

My heart sinks when I read of Azerbaijan. When I went on leave the lights in the Baku stadiums were incandescent and news reports on the European Games blared out. We knew that as these international competitions took place over 100 Azeri political prisoners were incarcerated, most at Kurdexani Jail on the Absheron Peninsular. But there was talk, perhaps hope against hope, that after the eyes of the world media turned away from Baku, the Aliyev regime would relent, appeals would be granted and prisoners released.

Screenshot 2015-10-20 12.34.15

How bitter it is then to read the roll call of abuse that has been meeted out by the courts, the prison officers and police of Azerbaijan in the three and a half months since the Games ended. To think of these people – Khadija, Ilgar, Leyla, Arif, Rasim, Aytaj, Seymour, Rasul, Intigam – and so many others of whom we have no knowledge. These bright minds are being beaten into cells where they are kept out of view, out of contact, kept in a world where the light is controlled. The prison guards determine exactly the hours of electric light and the hours of darkness, the time of waking, the time of washing, the time of eating. These people, these companions of ours, are being forced into darkness.

Using I search the seaways off the southern Turkish coast. There’s no sign of our favourite oil tanker, Dugi Otok, but I find Aegean Harmony bound for Tarragon having left the Ceyhan Terminal at 03.50 on the morning of Thursday 15th October. She provides a chink through which to see that the terminal is operating as normal. Crude is being pumped along the Baku-Tiblisi-Ceyhan pipeline, through the mountains of Turkey, the forests of Georgia and the villages of Azerbaijan. Oil is being extracted from beneath the Western Caspian Sea. The export of Azeri hydrocarbons towards the West and the ‘world market’ continues today unabated. Everything is proceeding as normal under the floodlights on the ACG oil platforms, the floodlights at the Sangachal Terminal on the coast south of Baku, the floodlights at the pumping station in Posof on the mountains at the Georgian-Turkish border, and the floodlights along the jetties at Ceyhan.

Now that the year has turned and the nights are longer, this road of light crossing the Causcasus is illuminated for more hours of the day. The lights burn bright in the BTC Pipeline Control Room at Sangachal and the BP offices that watch the removal of this oil around the clock – the offices in Baku, in Tbilisi, in Ankara, in Sunbury near Heathrow, and in St James’ Square, Piccadilly. Under the blue light of halogen bulbs everything is proceeding as normal. I scan the website that gives the Management Team of BP in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. Familiar faces are still in the photographs – Gordon Birell, Regional President; Chris Schlueter, Head of Country, Georgia; and so on. Everyone has remained at their posts over these summer months, keeping the company’s operations running smoothly.

The lights burn bright on Boulevard Konrad Adenauer in Luxembourg at the offices of the European Investment Bank. Staff at the bank are busy with the appraisal of the proposed loan to the Trans Adriatic Pipeline company. The loan would assist TAP in the construction of the pipeline across Greece, Albania and Italy which, as part of the much bigger Euro-Caspian Mega Pipeline, would export gas from the Azeri offshore fields to the power stations and domestic boilers of Western Europe. The officials of the Bank have been studying the deal to lend public funds to the private companies that aim to build this pipeline since at least January this year. The Bank chose to make the announcement, that it had launched the next phase of ‘appraisal’, on Thursday 13th August. It must have been a slow day in Luxembourg and Paris, coming in the middle of the holiday season but on the same Thursday Leyla and Arif Yunus, Azeri human rights activists, were sentenced in a Baku court to 8 ½ years imprisonment. They had already been incarcerated for a year.

Leyla was not allowed to make a statement to the court but her words were smuggled out of jail. I read them slowly:

We are both historians, and we are well aware that despotism is based on repressions…
In the 80s Arif and I worked for the Express-Chronicle newspaper which was published illegally. In 1986 our colleague Marchenko died in prison. For me, it was a shock. I am well aware of the deaths in Stalin’s camps, since three brothers of my grandfather passed away there. But in 1986….
They’re planning (now) to wipe us out in agony. Why is that? So that our agony and our deaths become a lesson for all. If they do not shy away from destroying a well-known family, then others are easy to destroy as well. Fear must live in the hearts of citizens. Fear and hopelessness.

The lights burn bright on Via della Moscova in Milan, Italy. Here are the offices of Hacking Team. This company retails surveillance equipment to states and corporations. It advertises its wares on its website with slogans such as:

Deploy a Secret Agent. Total control over your targets. Log everything you need. Always. Anywhere they are
Go Stealth and Untraceable. Invisible to the target. Evade computer security

Of course the operations of Hacking Team are almost entirely invisible to me, but it seems that they were presenting their goods at the Defence & Security Equipment International Exhibition arms fair in London between the 15th and 18th September. The Azeri government had been officially invited by the UK government to attend the fair. It seems that there was interest from Azeri state in the equipment and services that Hacking Team had to offer. Perhaps as I write, staff in the company are pursuing a contract with the Ministry of the Interior in Baku, that will help the Azeri government shine a brighter light onto the activities of its citizens and drive those who criticise it further into darkness.

In September 1992, the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, accompanied by Nick Butler of BP, flew from Hong Kong to Baku. Her journey was organised by the head of BP Exploration & Production, John Browne. His aim was to smooth the way in the signing of an agreement between the corporation and the new President of Azerbaijan, Abulfaz Elchibey. The strategy was successful. The deal was signed. Elchibey was suitably impressed by the presence of Mrs Thatcher who was famed across the Former Soviet Union as a determined ‘Cold War Warrior’ who had faced down the USSR. Elchibey had been a dissident and it is said that they discussed a book which they both held as a favourite – Arthur Koestler’s ‘Darkness at Noon’. This novel, published in 1940 was a legendary critique of the Stalin’s Great Terror.

It is a bitter reality that darkness is falling again in Baku, but that this time the Aliyev regime is underpinned by the governments, public institutions, corporations, and private companies of the apparently democratic West. That these institutions, and those that work in them, profit from the autocratic rule of the Aliyevs, and indeed profit from the incarceration of Khadija, Ilgar, Leyla, Arif, Rasim, Aytaj, Seymour, Rasul, Intigam and so many others.

This will not stand.

100 days in Azerbaijan
15.7.15 – Trial of Leyla Yunus begins in Baku. She reveals that she has been assaulted & tortured in prison and has lost sight in one eye.
24.7.15 – Khadija Ismayilova’s trial in Baku opens – independent journalists pelted with stones outside court – supporters and international observers refused access – Khadija says: “Aliyev imprisoned me to hinder my journalistic activity.”
27.7.15 – Nazim Aghabayov, brother in law of dissident Emin Milli is arrested in Baku – clearly as a means of pressuring Milli who is in exile in Berlin
3.8.15 – Secretrary General of the Council of Europe, Thorbjorn Jagland, writes to Azeri Justice Minister, Fikrat Mammadov to express concern that Ilgar Mammadov, Azeri political prisoner, has been attacked twice in his cell by fellow prisoners in the previous two weeks. Ilgar Mammadov was director of Council of Europe Baku School of Political Studies for seven years prior to his arrest.
10.8.15 – Rasim Aliyev, Azeri journalist critical of the government dies of wounds from unknown assailants after having received threats following his posting of images of brutality by Azeri police.
13.8.15 – Leyla Yunus (Director of the Institute for Peace & Democracy) & Arif Yunus (historian), human rights activists in Azerbaijan, sentenced to 8 ½ years for tax evasion and fraud – have been in prison since arrest a year previously – sentence condemned by Amnesty International and Human Right Watch as ‘a despicable show trial’
31.8.15 – Khadija Ismayilova issues scathing attack on corruption in Azerbaijan in final statement to Baku court before sentencing – about 100 supporters gather outside court and are cleared by police. Khadija says ‘I will build homes from the stones thrown at me’ – the Khadija Project is launched by 100 international journalists to continue investigating corruption in Azerbaijan.
1.9.15 – Khadija Ismayilova sentenced in Baku to 7 ½ years on charges of embezzlement, tax evasion, abuse of power & running an illegal business – Khadija’s mother, Almira Ismayilova, said Khadija laughed as the verdict was announced, “She didn’t say anything. She only laughed. Just like she always does.”1 UK Forieign Office Minister, Tony Liddington speaks against the sentence “We call on Azerbaijan to abide by its international commitments to respect the rule of law while taking concrete steps to improve their human rights record.”
16.9.15 – Aytaj Akhmedova, young journalist working with Meydan TV in Azerbaijan is arrested in Baku
26.9.15 – Azeri police ransack the home, and confiscate equipment, of critical journalist in Baku, Islam Shikhali who works for Radio Free Europe.
29.9.15 – judge in Sumgayit Court of Appeal upholds the sentence againt Seymour Ghazi, critical journalist on Azadlig in Baku, jailed on 29th January 2014 to five years
12.10.15 Leyla and Arif Yunus in Baku court at preliminary hearing of appeal. Leyla says “At least have the decency to comply with formalities of the hearing”
16.10.15 – Ilgar Mammadov, (leader of REAL, an Azerbaijan opposition party, who has been sentenced to 7 years) is beaten and kicked by three guards at the Sheki Penitentiary Institution leaving him with many injuries. Elgar was told by the prison head that he would not leave jail alive
20.10.15 – Leyla and Arif Yunus’ appeal hearing continues

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