Frozen lives amid Baku’s festivities

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Khadija Ismayilova, Azerbaijan's fearless investigative journalist, interviews U.S. Senator Ben Cardin in Baku, June, 2014. Kyle Parker under a Creative Commons Licence

Last week human rights activist Emma Hughes was detained in Azerbaijan. She had traveled to the country to cover government repression during the European Games currently being held in the capital city of Baku. Emma and James Marriott have just released All That Glitters – a new book covering the heady mix of sport, hydrocarbons and repression in Azerbaijan. Emma and James also wrote about the games in New Internationalist’s latest magazine issue. Below Emma writes of her recent deportation from Azerbaijan and highlights the courage of journalist Khadija Ismayil and others who speak out against the Aliyev regime despite intimidation and imprisonment.

As I sat detained in Heydar Aliyev International airport the minute long advert for the Baku 2015 games ran on repeat. For 12 hours I saw static athletes rise out of the Caspian Sea – captured in moments of sporting prowess. Their frozen figures seemed a curiously fitting representation of the academics, activists, journalists and lawyers whose lives have been put permanently on hold in Azerbaijan. In the run up to Baku 2015 the number of political prisoners in Azerbaijan has grown to well over 100. People imprisoned for speaking out against the Aliyev regime and its corporate backers, with BP chief among them.

One of these prisoners is journalist Khadija Ismayil. In mid-October 2014 Khadija was attending the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. Azerbaijan was coming to the end of its six month chairing period. Founded in 1949, the Council exists to promote co-operation between European countries. It is responsible for safeguarding legal standards, human rights and democracy. Since Azerbaijan became a member in 2001, it has become a key battleground and meetings are well attended by both the Azeri regime and Azeri civil society. The former is keen to make the case that all fundamental rights are upheld in Azerbaijan and the latter press the Council to hold Azerbaijan accountable for the daily abuses of those rights.

Khadija went to the council to tell European MPs about the multiple ways Azerbaijan is violating its membership. After a long day of meetings, Khadija and Giorgi Gogia from Human Rights Watch sat in the Council lobby waiting for a meeting with the president of the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly, Anne Brasseur.

It had been a difficult trip. Many of the Azeris who would normally be at the Council are now in jail. The most notable absence is human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev who has brought over 200 cases to the European Court of Human Rights. Everyone knew that Khadija’s own arrest was only a matter of time. While they waited Giorgi asked Khadija to say something on camera, something she wanted to tell others if she were arrested. Without hesitation Khadija says: ‘Keep fighting guys. Keep fighting for human rights, for those who are silenced.’ With a slight shake of her head and a small smile she added: ‘If arrest is the price of it, it’s okay, it’s worth it.’ Giorgi recorded it on his mobile phone. On 5 December, Human Rights Watch released Giorgi’s video of Khadija; it was the day of her arrest.

Khadija was born in Baku in the late 1970s. Her family was not wealthy; she had to work for her success. Energy and intelligence led to her quick promotion, not family connections. She became a journalist at 21 when the newspaper she was doing translation work for ran short of staff. She was sent out to get a story and then never stopped. Her work led to her becoming head of Radio Free Europe’s Azerbaijan service. There she did the investigative journalism that would eventually see her jailed.

Khadija is adamant that she didn’t set out to target the Aliyevs. The first time we met her in the offices of the radio station, just after she’d got off air from her daily show, she told us: ‘I didn’t go after the president, it’s just whatever business you dig into in Azerbaijan their names pop up.’ As she followed the money trail she was piecing together how Azerbaijan’s political élite keeps hold of the country’s most valuable assets. She began publishing stories about the president, the First Lady, their children Leyla, Arzu, and Heydar, their friends and relatives.

She revealed the many companies that they own, the huge profits these businesses make – often through deliberate price inflation on construction projects – and how these profits are routed through mysterious proxies and siphoned into offshore accounts. She showed how the Aliyev family controls the country’s gold and silver mines and Azerbaijan’s telecoms company NAR – one of the key sponsors of the Games – and she tracked what they spent their money on; luxurious properties in London and elsewhere. In short, Khadija showed the Azeri people how the élite had grabbed and squandered the country’s money. It was incendiary reporting and the Aliyevs could not ignore it.

One week after publishing her investigations into Azerbaijani telecoms in 2012, someone planted a camera in Khadija’s bedroom. Months later, when she was in the middle of a story about the interests profiting from the National Flag Square in Baku, Khadija received a letter and some stills taken from a video. The letter stated that if she did not cease her activities the video would be published on the internet. The photos were of her having sex with her boyfriend. Khadija refused to stop her work. The video was posted to the internet.

A smear campaign began against Khadija, with articles repeatedly appearing in national newspapers talking about the videos and labelling her a ‘loose’ woman. Although psychologically shaken by the regime’s attacks Khadija continued her investigations, refusing to be silenced.

The regime has targeted many other journalists. Elmar Huseynov ran the magazine Monitor, which was openly critical of the Aliyevs. After a decade of harassment he was murdered in March 2005. It is widely believed the government was responsible. Khadija spoke of Huseynov’s death: ‘They killed him at his doorstep. And the first thing I thought when I heard was, “It’s my responsibility too. It’s my fault as well, because he was doing it alone.”’ The murder catalyzed Khadija. Not only her investigative work; she also began mentoring younger journalists, supporting other activists, and campaigning herself. Her energy and determination became a touchstone of the Azeri democracy movement. The government was determined to remove her in the hope that all civil society opposition would crumble.

On the day of her arrest, 5 December 2014, she was bundled into a car with cameras flashing and friends banging on the roof shouting her name. She managed to smile and wave, absorbing the melee before being confined to the silence of her cell in Kurdexani prison.

On Friday 12 June, the Games opened, Khadija was only a few kilometres to the north in Kurdexani prison. Internment has not silenced this fierce critic. In the first six months of imprisonment Khadija managed to smuggle four letters out of jail, the most recent during the Games. In it she explains that Azerbaijan is experiencing a ‘human rights crisis’ and that the situation has never been worse. For these acts of defiance the regime used solitary confinement, cell searches and a bar on visitors to punish her.

Khadija’s message remains the same: keep strong and keep fighting. She urges her supporters to: ‘Speak up publicly and loudly. I don’t believe in human rights advocacy behind closed doors.’ Her time in jail has been spent reading and writing. She is translating a book. She tries to support other prisoners by helping draft appeal statements. In a letter published in March 2015 Khadija wrote, ‘Prison is not the end of life. I am learning the wrongdoings of the penitentiary and justice system. I take it as a challenge.’ She remains ‘full of hope that truth and justice will win’.

Dirty games


Out of the shadows: Azerbaijan’s oily secrets need to be exposed. © drmakkoy/Getty

On the evening of 12 June, the Baku 2015 European Games in Azerbaijan will begin. Fireworks will burst out of the National Stadium into the city sky. The roar of the spectators and music from the athletics ground will be heard across the hot metropolis and far out over the Caspian Sea.

Across Europe and beyond, the opening ceremony will be followed on TVs and laptops. Fifty nations and 6,000 athletes will be taking part in the Games, which have been dubbed ‘the great coming-out party of Azerbaijan’.

Rewind to April and, at the Court of Grave Crimes in central Baku, a sandy wind is swirling grit into people’s eyes. A young man emerges from a doorway. Arms behind his back and eyes watering, he is pushed head first into a waiting van.

The man is Rasul Jafarov, and he has just been sentenced to six and a half years for a crime he didn’t commit.

Young, handsome and charismatic, Jafarov shot to prominence in Azerbaijan when he spearheaded the Sing for Democracy campaign in 2012. The campaign highlighted the lack of democracy in a country where the ruling Aliyev family has held on to power through fraudulent elections, attacking independent media and arresting people for holding so much as a flashmob.

Euro-pop is a serious matter for the Aliyevs. The oil-funded dynasty is obsessed with vanity projects (for a few precious weeks Baku had the tallest flagpole in the world, until Tajikstan built a taller one) and the Eurovision Song Contest, hosted by Azerbaijan in 2012, was the perfect opportunity to show the world that the Aliyevs headed a modern, secular, European country.

So Jafarov caused the regime considerable embarrassment when he persuaded the winner, Loreen, not only to meet with him but to give her public support to Sing for Democracy.

Since then, Jafarov has focused on supporting political prisoners in Azerbaijan. Shortly after launching the Sport for Rights campaign last year to target the Baku European Games, he was arrested for illegal entrepreneurship and tax evasion.

He was held for eight months in pre-trial detention before being sentenced. Human Rights Watch has called the charges ‘bogus’. During the trial, the ‘victims’ called by the prosecution stated that they were fully paid by Jafarov and did not regard themselves as victims, but when they tried to present documents to prove this the judge refused to look at them.

Family ties

Trials in Azerbaijan are not about truth or justice – their purpose is intimidation, brutalizing those who stand up to the Aliyev regime to ensure that no-one else dares speak out.

Rasul Jafarov is far from alone. The human rights situation in Azerbaijan has rapidly deteriorated over the last year and there are at least 100 political prisoners there. The true figure is likely higher, but monitoring prisoner numbers has become impossible.

At almost the exact moment Jafarov was being sentenced in Baku, Bob Dudley, the CEO of energy giant BP – which is intimately involved in delivering the Baku Games – was rising to his feet in the concrete behemoth of London’s ExCel convention centre. Addressing the audience gathered for the company’s annual general meeting, Dudley was keen to talk about BP’s close, 21-year relationship with the Aliyevs.

All eyes on Azerbaijan: a Baku taxi promotes the upcoming European Games.

Oguz Dikbakan/Alamy

His talk was peppered with lines that would not have been out of place in an Azerbaijan tourist-board announcement urging everyone to visit the country. Dudley was talking about the Euro-Caspian Mega Pipeline – a new joint venture between the Aliyevs and a number of oil companies and other governments.

The multi-state gas pipeline will run about 3,500 kilometres between the Caspian Sea and Italy, and by 2050 will have put just over two billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. When Dudley was questioned about the human rights situation in Azerbaijan, he replied: ‘I urge you all to go to Azerbaijan. It’s a great place.’

The Aliyev regime and the oil company have been bound together since 1994 when they signed the so-called Contract of the Century to extract crude oil from Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli – the oil field beneath the western Caspian Sea.

The relationship continues to be one of key importance for both parties. As BP proudly declares in its annual report, it invests more in Azerbaijan than any other foreign company (although quite how good a deal Azerbaijan is getting is contested – BP pays no tax for the export of oil; indeed, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline is registered in the tax haven of the British Virgin Islands).

In terms of net production, in 2014 Azerbaijan was BP’s fourth-largest supplier after Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico and Angola. But Azerbaijan’s importance for BP is not just measured in barrels per day – the country is its security, its pension pot. When times get hard, BP still expects to be able to rely on Azerbaijan.

Risky business

This was evident in July 2010, during the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. To shore up support for his beleaguered company, then-CEO Tony Hayward flew to four key cities: Moscow, Abu Dhabi, Luanda – and Baku. When Bob Dudley took over as CEO in October 2010, the first new deal signed was a production-sharing agreement with the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan on the Shafag and Asiman gas field.

It wasn’t just the timing that gave this project special significance. BP is planning to use Shafag and Asiman as a test case for its Project 20K high-pressure, high-temperature drilling.

BP hopes that this technology will allow it to extract oil and gas more than 10 kilometres below the seabed, where temperatures can rise to 150oC and pressure can increase to 20,000 psi.

In Azerbaijan, ecology, social justice and human rights can be put aside when they threaten to hinder the primary economic activity: the extraction and exporting of oil and gas

This new frontier of deepwater drilling is risky. It is hard to predict the dangers, and if something goes wrong the reputational damage to BP could be irreparable. Yet BP feels secure enough to take this risk in Azerbaijan.

Key to its Azerbaijan operations is BP’s relationship with President Ilham Aliyev. ‘The Number One priority [for Gordon Birrell, BP’s regional president],’ admitted a senior BP executive, speaking in private, ‘is the relationship with Aliyev.’

Azerbaijan has been moulded into an industrial resource colony, where ecology, social justice and human rights can be put aside when they threaten to hinder the primary economic activity: the extraction and exporting of oil and gas.

‘Before the oil and gas incomes came to Azerbaijan,’ said Rasul Jafarov, ‘we had more democracy and freedom. The main income from oil came in 2006 when the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline started to operate. And from that time the situation started to deteriorate.’

Azerbaijan is being drained by the BP-Aliyev Alliance – drained of fossil fuels, drained of wealth, and drained of democracy. Sadly, the glitz and glamour of the opening ceremony of the Baku Games will only serve to blind the world to this terrible reality.

Emma Hughes and James Marriott work for Platform, which uses arts, activism education and research to challenge the global oil industry. This article is an extract from All That Glitters: Sport, BP and the Azerbaijan Crackdown, a new book published by Platform to coincide with the Baku 2015 Games.

A free and fair election in Azerbaijan? No chance

Parliament building Baku

Azerbaijan's parliament building in Baku. Tony Bowden under a Creative Commons Licence

Today Azerbaijan is going to the polls in their presidential elections. It is certain that the current President, Ilham Aliyev, will win – reports claim that the flowers for his inauguration ceremony have already been ordered. The chances of the result reflecting crosses in boxes are slim, and the possibility of a free and fair election is zero. A heavily censured press and a year marked by a huge number of political arrests has ensured this election will be like previous ones: undemocratic.

Ilham Aliyev became president in 2003 after the death of his father Heydar – who has been in power since 1993. Aliyev’s rule was entrenched by the signing of what was dubbed ‘the contract of century’ in 1994. This brought 11 corporations, including BP as the operating company, into a consortium to extract oil from the Caspian Sea. It also gave the Aliyev family vast wealth and important international allies, and freed them from reliance on citizens’ taxes. As such, there was little incentive for Aliyev to listen to people’s voices, respect their interests or create any form of democracy. No election in this 20-year period can be characterized as fair or transparent.

This time there are 10 presidential hopefuls; but this does not mean there are nine people genuinely campaigning against Aliyev. Most of candidates are ‘pro-government’ and use their allotted campaign time to talk in favour of the autocrat. There is only one serious opposition candidate: Camil Hasanli. This professor of history was the replacement choice of the National Council of Democratic Forces after their original candidate, the filmmaker Rustam Ibragimbekov, was disqualified on the grounds of his dual Russian citizenship. The National Council represents an attempt to bring together two of the major political parties Musavet and the People’s Front – along with NGO and civil society groups, to present a joint candidate.

Ibragimbekov is not the only candidate disqualified from entry in the elections – Ilgar Mammadov of the Republican Alternative was also refused registration. He has been held in pre-trial detention since January and was declined registration in late August on the grounds that some of the signatures supporting his candidacy were invalid – a claim that is widely contested. Mammadov joins 141 other political prisoners in Azerbaijan, including bloggers, journalists, youth and religious activists. The number has more than doubled since January thanks to increased repression in the run up to the election.

All the major state and private television channels support the government; during the last few weeks, TV screens in Azerbaijan have been filled with pictures of the president and his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, opening empty golf clubs and hospitals with mannequins instead of patients on their ‘nationwide tour’. One media opportunity extended to the other candidates was the televised presidential debates, although Aliyev himself declined to take part – he probably had too many kindergartens to visit. In one debate, opposition candidate Hasanli found his six minutes of air time cut short when a pro-government candidate threw a bottle of water at him after he brought up the topic of the regime’s corrupt business dealings. It is this corruption that has led to large amounts of Azerbaijani wealth finding its way into offshore bank accounts.

Now that Azerbaijan’s oil production has peaked – initially declining from 800,000 barrels per day to 660,000 – gas becomes crucial for the regime. In the upcoming years over 10 billion cubic metres of gas a year will be produced via a $40 scheme to unlock new reserves from the Shah Deniz gas field in the territorial waters of Azerbaijan. The gas will be transported via the Euro-Caspian Mega Pipeline, a huge piece of infrastructure which will (in the first instance) cross Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, Greece, Albania, go under the Adriatic Sea and finish in Italy. There is potential for the pipeline to be extended further, to Iraqi Kurdistan or Turkmenistan for example; at this point Azerbaijan would switch from being a producer to a transit country.

Azerbaijan borders both Russia and Iran: this means that Aliyev’s regime plays a pivotal role for Western geopolitical and energy ambitions; powerful players support his dictatorship. Azerbaijani civil society organizes under extreme pressure and many now fear reprisals after the election period, yet it is hard for Azeris to find support among the international community, who are mostly concerned with keeping relations with Aliyev friendly.

In the summer, EU commissioner Barroso welcomed Aliyev to Brussels and praised the country for its progress on democracy and human rights. In return, Aliyev promised Europe 2 trillion cubic metres of gas reserves. BP, when asked whether its development of the Shah Deniz gas field would enhance the reputation of the Aliyev regime, pointed to European Union support for the project. In such a context few are interested in asking difficult questions about what gas deals with an illegitimate regime mean for the people of the country.

Azerbaijanis are not waiting for Europe; many spend every day engaged in a struggle against Aliyev. Despite the repression they face the democracy movement is growing in Azerbaijan and the country’s activists are optimistic: dissenting voices within the country are slowly increasing. European decision-makers are once again making the continent reliant on undemocratic regimes for its power and creating an energy infrastructure that ensures Europe’s energy demands are at odds with people’s demands for democracy. From Azerbaijan’s capital Baku you cannot see the country’s oil and gas fields, which lie offshore over 100 kilometres away, yet on election day their impact on the country is only too visible. 

To hear the stories of four people silenced by the Aliyev regime, visit the Platform website.

Emma Hughes is a campaigner with Platform London.

Pirates! Oil companies are stoking hysteria to line their pockets

‘Skiffs’ are no match for military vehicles. Photo: Official U.S. Navy Imagery, under a CC license.

This week the Combating Piracy Conference has been taking place in London, behind closed doors. This industry-organized event brings together representatives from European Union, NATO and oil and shipping companies.

At a time when austerity is cutting into the public purse, and the armed forces, oil and shipping companies have been using the conference to call for military resources to be allocated to protecting their own commercial interests.

And it’s not so hard for them to do. In the lexicography of evil the word ‘pirate’ comes just below ‘terrorist’. The ‘war on piracy’ fits a familiar trope – with a clear enemy, against which any amount of force is acceptable.

The reality is more complex. Even at its height, fewer than one per cent of tankers travelling through the Gulf of Aden were hijacked, and the number is now far lower. Yet British oil companies have managed to exaggerate the dangers for shipping off the coast of Somalia and pressed government ministers into granting them a vast, hidden military subsidy, physically embodied in Navy frigates, drones and helicopters.

Since 2008, when the crude tanker the Sirius Star was hijacked, a vast area of the North-West Indian ocean, in particular the Gulf of Aden, has been heavily militarized. Warships, helicopters and drones patrol the ocean creating an intense naval deployment that can easily overpower the small and basic ‘skiffs’ used by Somali pirates.

The causes of piracy in the regions are varied. They include: the heavy US military presence in the area and support for corrupt warlords; the loss of local fisherfolk livelihoods due to  illegal over-fishing by international trawlers; and the dumping of toxic waste by European companies in the sea off the Somali coast.

On the agenda at the conference was Vessel Protection Detachments (VPDs). Oil and shipping industries have been lobbying for the British Navy to provide teams of military personnel, so called VPDs, aboard commercial vessels – effectively acting as private security guards.

Some other countries are already letting corporations use their military personnel on ships. The Dutch government plans to deploy 100 VPD teams of ten people each, at the estimated cost of $29 million. The shipping companies will only pay half, effectively gaining a subsidy of $14.5 million.

Since 2008 Merchant Navy Liaison Officers (MNLOs) have been seconded from companies to work in the Ministry of Defence’s Northwood HQ within the EU Atalanta anti-piracy operation. In November 2010, 12 MNLOs were awarded European Defence medals for their role with the Royal Navy as part of Operation Atalanta. Of these 12 merchant navy officers, 9 worked for oil companies like BP and Shell, or in oil and gas transportation companies (often owned by oil majors like Exxon).

The companies boast of their generosity in providing staff free of charge, but the industry reaps huge rewards from these secondments as their employees have influence over deployment tactics, ensuring that the British Navy are always correctly positioned to protect their ships.

Oil companies have talked-up the threat of piracy to influence specific military operations and spending priorities. Yet until now, the role of oil and gas companies in the militarization of the Gulf of Aden has received little attention. This is partly because debate focuses upon pirates as a pernicious evil that threatens vital national interests – in particular the supply of oil and gas. In reality, hardly any of the energy from the Gulf of Aden is destined for Britain and it is corporate rather than national interests that the Navy is defending. However, emboldened by their influence over military policy, companies are now hyping pirate attacks taking place in the Gulf of Guinea off West Africa and demanding a similar military response.

Although piracy off Somalia has included violence and led to a loss of lives, the response advocated by the oil industry is not about protecting people.

Knee-jerk military responses place everybody at greater risk. Instead we need a more careful examination of the actual dangers of piracy and how far they can be tackled by vessels taking self-protective measures rather than relying on public subsidies. Resources could be more effectively used to address the underlying root causes of poverty, conflict and pollution.

Emma Hughes is a campaigner with Platform, an arts, activism and research organization focusing on the social, economic and environmental impacts of the global oil industry.

For more information see Platform’s report
A Secret Subsidy.

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