Dissident Azeri journalists and political activists are being violently attacked in the streets of Western countries for their opposition to the government of Azerbaijan, whose President, Ilham Aliyev, ruthlessly suppresses free speech and freedom of the press. Those activists and journalists are subject to death threats and other tactics of intimidation. Indeed, some have lost their lives in “suspicious” circumstances.
One of those journalists is France-based Mahammad Mirzali, who said that during one of the assaults he was exposed to, his attackers attempted to cut out his tongue.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported on March 16, 2021 that Mirzali was stabbed at least 16 times in a knife attack in France:
On March 14, Mirzali, who runs the Made in Azerbaijan YouTube video blog, was walking in downtown Nantes, the city in western France where he lives in exile, when six men approached him and started punching him and stabbing him with knives in his arms, hands, legs, neck, and face, according to news reports in Caucasus and Azerbaijan-focused outlets.
This was neither the first nor the last attack Mirzali was subject to. According to a report by the Reporters Without Borders (RSF), French police arrested two suspected hit men on June 12, 2022 on a motorway who were on their way to murder Mirzali.
“Everything seems to indicate that this was yet another attempt to murder Mahammad Mirzali, the third attempt, one just as terrifying as the previous two,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “A hit squad was sent from abroad to target a blogger who was given political asylum in France because of his criticism of Ilham Aliyev. This case must be addressed at the highest state level.”
In an interview with Providence, Mirzali said he left Azerbaijan in 2016 due to the pressure and torture he was subject to in the country. “I was imprisoned for 20 days in Azerbaijan because of my political activities,” he stated. “I was detained by police and tortured many times. That’s why I left my country and settled in France.”
Mirzali says he has not found the safety and security he needs in France either:
I still receive threatening messages from the Azerbaijani government every day. They are making massive propaganda against me on Azerbaijani TV. They accuse me of cooperating with the Armenians. They have tried to kill me five times.
The French government is keeping me under police protection for the time being. They help as much as they can. But the French government is completely silent in the face of the actions of Azerbaijan targeting me. The truth is that I don’t feel safe in France. But there is nothing else I can do. That’s why I’m going to leave France one day.
On June 17, 2022, in another French city, Mulhouse. Azerbaijani political activist Vidadi Iskenderov was attacked and stabbed. Iskenderov, the head of the NGO “Assistance to the Defense of Democracy”, said he believes that the incident took place with the support of Azerbaijan’s authorities.
Another outspoken critic of the government of Azerbaijan, Manaf Jalilzade, was brutally attacked and was nearly murdered in Switzerland in April of this year.
In an interview with Providence, Jalilzade said he left Azerbaijan in 2017, where he worked as a top military commander.
I was fired from my job because I criticized the government and president Aliyev. They wanted to imprison me, so I had to escape the country. Since I came to Europe, I have continued engaging in my political commentary, and lawsuits have been filed against me in my country.
The Aliyev regime is targeting me because I have exposed all their dirty deeds to the public, and because I have told the truth to the people. They have targeted not only me but also my family many times; my brother was imprisoned for a month.
On April 30, three people sent by Aliyev beat me in front of my house in Switzerland and broke my nose and teeth. And they said: ‘If you don’t apologize to Aliyev’s wife and if you continue to speak against Aliyev and his family, we will kill you.’
I am still receiving threats. I do not feel safe in this country because serious steps have not been taken to protect my life. In fact, the murder case related to the attack on me was closed in less than a month.
Jalilzade added that even after dissident Azeris move to Europe, they are sued by the courts there upon the instructions of the Aliyev regime. Political blogger Orkhan Aghayev, who lives in Germany, for instance, was attacked in February 2021. He was seriously injured and hospitalized. The assailants reportedly spoke Turkish. In August, Aliyev sued the blogger at a German court.
“SOCAR (the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan) took me and the blogger Süleyman Süleymanlı, who also lives in Switzerland, to court here,” Jalilzade said. “Azeri dissidents, Elvin Isayev and Maqsud Mahmudov, were also deported from Ukraine to Azerbaijan, where they were given prison sentences.”
“The Aliyev regime is doing everything to get us deported to Azerbaijan,” Jalilzade added.
They have even got Interpol to issue a Red Notice to locate and arrest us. The Aliyev regime spends millions of euros to silence its opponents abroad.
Many human rights groups around the world, however, turn a blind eye to Aliyev’s crimes. Tragically, it seems that the Aliyev regime has bought so many people in the West with their money and gas. But we, Azerbaijanis, are fighting for democracy against the dictatorship of Aliyev despite all the dangers.
The Institute for Peace and Democracy, led by Azeri activists in the Netherlands, Leyla Yunus and Arif Yunus, noted in a 2020 statement that they were informed of “confidential information from Baku [capital of Azerbaijan] about the plans to neutralize the most active critics of the regime living in the West” and a list of individuals that Azerbaijan planned on targeting:
As the result of brutal persecutions, many civil society activists, human rights activists, and journalists have had to leave Azerbaijan out of fear of their own physical destruction. Recently the Azerbaijani dictator has expanded his terror against his critics in Europe and in the United States…We write this appeal in the hope of preventing new assassination attempts of our like-minded people, colleagues, and friends.
Azeri blogger Gabil Mammadov, who lives in Germany, was attacked and severely beaten in January 2020 by “unidentified persons” who used tear gas against him, added the statement.
US-based Azeri journalist, Sevinc Osmanqizi, who often faces harassment and threats due to her work, said that in 2020 she almost had a car accident. She believed it was caused by Azerbaijani government-affiliated henchmen who had tampered with the tires of her car.
Some dissident Azeris lost their lives under unclear conditions.
- An Azeri political refugee living in Belgium, Vugar Rza, disappeared in December, 2020. His body was found in a river 15 days later, on January 18, 2021.
- Azeri opposition activist and former prisoner of conscience, Bayram Mammadov, was found dead in Istanbul, Turkey in May, 2021. Mammadov went missing on May 2 and on May 4 Turkish police informed his friends that he had drowned. Mammadov previously had been arrested in Azerbaijan after writing the words “Happy Slave Day” on a statue of former Azeri president Heydar Aliyev.
- Journalist Huseyn Bakixanov died after allegedly “falling” from a roof of a hotel in the city of Tbilisi in Georgia in July, 2021.
Azeri journalists have also been victims of kidnappings at the hands of their own government. Afgan Mukhtarli, an Azerbaijani journalist, and a former political prisoner, was kidnapped in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, in 2017, and then illegally brought across the border to Azerbaijan, where he was arrested and jailed.
In a 2021 article, Ganimat Zaidov (Zahid), an editor of the Azeri opposition newspaper Azadlig and a resident of France, described the details of what he said was “an apparent murder plot” by Azerbaijan against three exiled Azeri journalists, including himself. Zaidov was arrested in 2007 in Azerbaijan and sentenced to four years of imprisonment. He said he had to take his family out of the country in 2011 because of the threats he received.
Azerbaijan is a brutal dictatorship that silences opposition both at home and abroad. How does the European Union respond?
According to a recent report on the official website of the European Commission, the EU and Azerbaijan are “enhancing bilateral relations in a wide range of areas, including energy cooperation, economic diversification, investment, and trade.” In July, the EU signed a deal with Azerbaijan to double gas imports by 2027.
The Azeri dissidents, however, despite the very real threat against their lives, still courageously stand up against the dictatorship of Azerbaijan.
Will the EU executives finally acknowledge these realities, show some courage by representing the interests of persecuted minorities, and stand up with conviction against their oppressors?