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Interview ‘The West is wilfully blind to Azerbaijan’s crimes’

Azerbaijani peace activist ZAMIRA ABBASOVA tells Ben Cowles how her country’s kleptocratic government forced her into exile

“THE security service tracked down my mother and interrogated my father,” Zamira Abbasova, an exiled Azerbaijani peace activist and podcaster, tells me.

Zamira Abbasova
Zamira Abbasova

“They said to him: ‘Tell your daughter to stop this charade. If she doesn’t, you know what we will do to her’.”

Abbasova, 35, has spent the past three years living in a state of de facto exile. Her peace-building work with Azerbaijani and Armenian youth made her persona non grata at home.

Her problems with Azerbaijan’s kleptocratic government began when she got involved with a peace-building organisation called the Tekali Association in 2010.

“Tekali is a town in Georgia, near the intersection of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Peace builders have been doing work there for several years. We organised several events and got Armenian and Azerbaijani youth together to speak.”

You would probably struggle to write down everything you know about Azerbaijan on the back of a stamp.

You may remember the Azerbaijani Laundromat scandal, a money-laundering operation involving £2.2 billion sloshing around in British-registered shell companies in order for the government to bribe European politicians, which came to light in September 2017. But apart from that the country barely makes the news.

One reason for that is likely because the country’s ruling family allows Western corporations to exploit its abundant natural resources, unlike official enemies Venezuela or Iran. It therefore escapes the notice of our media outlets which rely on state-corporate subsidised sources for news.

The country formally declared independence in 1991 during the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since 1993 — when the president was overthrown in a military coup — Azerbaijan has been ruled by the Aliyev family, first Heydar and then his son Ilham after his death in 2003.

The country had been fighting an undeclared war with its western-neighbour Armenia since the late ’80s over control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which lies within Azerbaijan’s internationally recognised borders  but is mainly populated by people of Armenian descent.

The bloody war officially ended in 1994. But relations between the two countries remain tense, particularly around the heavily fortified Nagorno-Karabakh region — which is now the self-declared Republic of Artsakh, a country recognised only by the unrecognised states of Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The country’s human rights record is undeniably sketchy. According to Human Rights Watch,  “Azerbaijan’s government continues to wage a vicious crackdown on critics and dissenting voices.

“The space for independent activism, critical journalism, and opposition political activity has been virtually extinguished by the arrests and convictions of many activists, human rights defenders and journalists, as well as by laws and regulations restricting the activities of independent groups and their ability to secure funding.”

Abbasova also happens to be my housemate. I took a renewed interested in her situation several months ago after reading a news report of a meeting between Tony Blair and Italy’s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini to discuss an EU-Azerbaijan fossil-gas project called the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC).

I wrote several hundred words over the Star’s limit on the SGC last December. But in short, the SGC is a series of natural gas pipelines stretching from Azerbaijan, through Turkey, Greece and Albania, and ending in Italy.

Not only is the project an environmental risk, critics say it is also propping up the repressive government with billions of euros.

For a number of years Abbasova took small groups of Azerbaijani university students into Georgia to take part in the Tekali Association’s peace building events with their peers from Armenia. But the hatred between these two nations is still so strong that she and the participants had to keep it a secret.

“When you get engaged in peace building events, you do not tell anyone, not even your friends and family. It’s still a taboo subject.

“You hear hate speech everyday. Kids are brainwashed into hating Armenians. Our school books teach kids to think of them as our enemies.”

Then in August 2015, Abbasova’s life was swept up in a storm of geopolitics.   

“We had organised another dialogue programme between the kids. We got them to write and deliver speeches on how they envision a peace settlement to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

“It was this great event that was supposed to last for four days. But after two days, shooting started at the Armenian-Azerbaijani border and we had to stop the event.

“As soon as we crossed the border back into Azerbaijan, we had two police cars following our van across the country until we arrived back in Baku.

“They followed us everywhere. They were taking our photos, making eye contact with us and making sure that we understood we were being followed.”

As soon as they arrived back in the capital, a state-run newspaper had printed their pictures and spun the event as a traitorous act.

“One of the participants’ houses was raided by the police. He was a former political prisoner and fled Azerbaijan that night. He had a long and very painful eight-month journey across Europe until he settled in the Netherlands.

“Three others were heavily interrogated and harassed. Their photos were all over the place, and they were publicly shamed.”

At the time Abbasova worked her day job at the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham). A few weeks after the trip the Ministry of National Security (MNS) called the company demanding to speak with her.

“So I was summoned to the [MNS] and they asked me to come alone, not to bring a lawyer and not to tell anyone I was going there. I left my phone and went.

“I was interrogated for about three and a half hours. They wanted to know if I had been spying for the US or Armenian governments.

“I got questioned about all of these civil society activists, human rights defenders, journalists; basically everyone who was opposing the government. Obviously, I didn’t give them any answers.

“They showed me this huge folder and said: ‘This is your case. It’s an active investigation. Don’t leave the town. We will call you ourselves’.

“They said, ‘You know what will happen if you do not co-operate’. That means that you lose your job, your family gets harassed, you get arrested, you can be taken away and nobody will ever know what happened to you.”

Two months later, Aliyev dismissed the head of the MNS, Eldar Mahmudov, who had been in the position since 2004, for allegedly tapping his personal phone. The whole ministry was thrown into disarray for months — an enormous stroke of luck for Abbasova.

“I quit my job at AmCham, packed my shit and moved to Georgia in early 2016.”

She ended up in the capital, Tbilisi, and began working for an NGO there called the Imagine Centre for Conflict Transformation.

“I was working as a country director for Azerbaijan. We were also doing dialogue programmes between Armenian and Azerbaijani youth in Georgia.

“Our work wasn’t going well, because we couldn’t organise anything legally inside Azerbaijan. So we worked only in Georgia.”

Once the political turmoil settled down at the MNS, the agents tracked down Abbasova’s parents.

“Early 2017, they went to my mum’s office. They asked her to call me and she did. And she was like, ‘There are people here who would like to talk to you’. I told her to give them my phone number.

“It was the same guy who ran my previous investigation. He said: ‘Can we meet? Can I come to Georgia and meet with you there?’ I was like, ‘No, I want nothing to do with you. Leave me alone’.

“There was a car outside my building. Every single day there was a guy sitting in that car watching me going in and out.

“They listened to all of my calls. It was impossible to hold a conversation with my mum. They have old machines for listening in. You’d hear a really loud click and I was like, ‘Guys let me talk to my mum and then you can switch it back on. Let me just gossip with my mum.’

“Everything was bugged. In the house I noticed they’d shifted stuff around searching.”

Things carried on like this until May 4 2017 when the state-owned newspaper Haqqin, and its English Language offshoot Azeri Daily, published an editorial entitled: “Anti-Azerbaijani underground in Tbilisi: Safe houses, money, instructions.”

The editorial named and gave the home addresses of Azerbaijani citizens living in Tbilisi, including Abbasova, who they described as “a thin and ordinary-looking girl” who is “very critical, if not hostile, towards the Azerbaijani authorities.”

Some of those named in the article were pushed back into Azerbaijan, Abbasova says. “They kidnapped them illegally and returned them to Azerbaijan without a trial or anything; no passport.

“They were sent over the border illegally with a black bag on their head. They had the shit kicked out of them and they ended up in a closed trial where there are no journalists and lawyers were not allowed to participate.”

Abassova believes the spooks were involved with the article. “Because they couldn’t get any information out of me, they included me in the article as a punishment.

“This is the way it works. Whoever is under their radar, right before you’re arrested, they legitimise the case by publishing an article about you. They just make up a story that legitimises why they’re arresting you. So the moment the article was published we knew this is what’s coming.”

A week after the article was published Abbasova was on her way to Bosnia to take part in a radio activism course. While she was there, she says, “I got a call from my neighbours telling me that my house in Tbilisi had been raided.

“As soon as I heard that had happened, I sent a message to the security agent saying: ‘I heard some men have been searching for me. Was that you?’ He was like, ‘No, no, no. That was not us’.

“And then he added, ‘Oh, by the way, I saw the article where your name and address had been published. I’m so sorry to hear that’.

“I said: ‘F*** all of you. Never contact me again. This is over. Bye’.”

Abbasova did not return to Georgia. Instead she ended up in the Czech Republic on a temporary relocation visa. From there she gained a scholarship to study a Master’s degree in London for a year and ended up living in the same house as me.

Her scholarship visa stipulates that she cannot apply for asylum in Britain afterwards. If she does try to claim asylum then the Home Office will place her in enormous debt by smacking her with the enormous tuition fees before it has even decided if she can stay.

We will not get into the specifics but Abbasova will likely have left Britain by the time you’re reading this. Unable to return home, to Georgia or Armenia and stuck in Europe during the far-right’s resurgence, she faces de facto statelessness and a life of endless visa complications.

I ask her how she feels about Britain, the West’s and in particular oil giant BP’s role in her country.

“While they’re supporting all these oil and gas contracts inside Azerbaijan, they’re blind to the human rights situation happening inside the country.

“All that money that comes into Azerbaijan is going towards support of the war. Much of the budget is going towards the war because we are still at war with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh issue.

“We have been advocating for years and years for justice, for human rights, for the freedom of the media and freedom of speech, and we’ve seen nothing.

“We have dedicated our lives into this work. We have tried speaking with the EU, US, the British, Germany, the UN, you name it. We have been advocating, actively screaming about violence happening inside the country, violence done to civil society, to activists, to anyone voicing their concerns about their rights, corruption, and bribery.

“None of these agencies are voicing any concern. They blind themselves because if they start supporting civil society activists, that means they will be kicked out of Azerbaijan and lose business.”

Zamira Abbasova is a peace activist and podcaster. Ben Cowles is the Morning Star’s web editor.

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