Andrew Jennings

Andrew Jennings

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

The Sporting Corleones of the Caspian - Part 4: Meet the thugs with brass knuckles

Monday 3 March 2014, 4.35 amBOOM! Up go the offices of the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party. The police blamed the blast on a faulty gas cylinder - although there had never been any in the building. Little changes in the Caspian prison camp. A year earlier police raided a democracy training seminar in Baku, organized by Germany’s Friedrich Naumann Foundation. "Where's Nauman?" they demanded, fingering their batons expectantly. It took a while to convince them that the theologian died in 1919.

Three years ago we began collecting into a desktop folder disturbing stories of police violence and the Corleone war on freedom. There are so many now that we can only mention a few from the endless horror. This year Azerbaijan has three times more prisoners than Ireland. Perhaps Pat Hickey will want to mention this to IOC President Bach – and maybe the Irish team he is sending to Baku. Here's how Sonny's thugs treat the people, especially youngsters, the same age as the foreign athletes.

Azerbaijan's brutal police silence protesters
The Free Thought University, funded by the US and UK embassies in Baku to promote democracy and human rights was shut down in April 2013. Prosecutors arrived at the university in without warning and sealed its doors.

Elvan Nabiyev was arrested five days after he and 24 others sent a letter to President Aliyev complaining about unfair treatment by officials in Kurdamir district. “Immediately after that the pressures began. Our shops started to be demolished," said one of them.

Lawyer Khalid Bagired was recently disbarred after defending a group of opposition activists. Another activist was beaten on the street, saw his father kidnapped and a colleague murdered. Jailed, the guards added on two more years claiming to have found heroin in his cell. Then in midwinter they locked him for 15 days in a "kartser," a Soviet-era concrete cell.

"The only way to survive was to be constantly in motion," he said. "If I stood still for even a moment, I would have died. I didn't sleep for 15 days. The windows were open and there was no bed."

Do the Baku cops and prosecutors have any shame? Do they tell their loved ones what they do for a living? Three activists from the NIDA youth group were arrested and accused of planning an insurrection. Police claim they found petrol bombs and marijuana at their homes. Other activists believe they were tortured before appearing on state television confessing their guilt and admitting they had been plotting revolution.

Khadija Ismayilova explains, "Activists are forced to sign statements asking for clemency. They have to go to the cemetery and bow at the grave of former President Heydar Aliyev, all the while being filmed."

There are two kinds of journalists in Baku. The compliant ones living in a block of apartments built for them by kindly "Michael." He inaugurated the Baku building on National Press Day in 2013, announcing that "Freedom of speech is fully secured in Azerbaijan."

Where the dictator stores his journalists
The rest bounce between hospitals, newsrooms on the verge of closure by the cops, random attacks by street thugs who are never caught and the Khurdakhani jail.

The experience of independent Editor Sardar Alibeili, is typical. Fellow walks up to him, spits in his face, throws himself on pavement screaming in agony. Cops appear immediately and arrest our man for hooliganism.

Again: Gulbuta Khasmammadova explained what happened when her son was accosted by a stranger while out with family members.
“Some man we didn’t know spat in my son’s face. When Taleh asked him why he’d done it, he fell on the ground and started yelling. Then he feigned unconsciousness,” she said. “Policemen who were nearby arrested my son.”

“The incident was recorded on CCTV and there are eyewitnesses. But both investigators and the court have refused to look at the footage or interview witnesses,” she said. The family noted that the "victim" has appeared as a prosecution witness in previous trials.

The definition of an honest reporter in Azerbaijan is one who when stopped by the police is carrying heroin and a search reveals ammunition in their homes. They are arraigned in cages in the sinister-sounding Grave Crimes Court.

The First Lady, The Daughters and Baku's propagandists enthuse about their country's religious tolerance. This is news to Baptists who are tossed in jail for practicing religion without a permit. They asked for one and were refused. Same with Jehovah's Witnesses. "Under our laws, spreading religious books is banned," explained a top cop. Some Sunni Muslims can end up in jail for praying at home. Norway's Forum 18 publishes sad reports of religious repression.

When President Sonny isn't closing the domestic press and jailing its journalists his tax inspectors turn on internationally respected NGOs providing independent news. Bank accounts are frozen, bogus cases of libel and defamation and tax evasion launched against free papers, tame judges impose vast penalties. Reporters are subjected to hours of screaming abuse that they are spies and foreign agents. When dragged before secret courts the compliant judges prevent them objecting to phony evidence.

The Baku boosters can't stop lying. They claim to their captive audience that "nearly" 200 TV networks around the planet will screen these "European Games." Why?  A source at one station told us that they got the feed from Baku for free, as long as they screened two minutes of tourism adverts every hour.

Aliyev inspects his army: we want a war!
ON A QUIET DAY in Baku you might hear the daily exchanges of fire at the front line. Snipers, mortars, heavy artillery and rockets. Later in the day there's a ping pong of allegations, the daily scoreline, about "violations of the ceasefire" on the OSCE-imposed Line of Contact with Armenia. Both sides announce deaths of soldiers and thousands of bullets winging across the countryside. Will visiting athletes be equipped with body armour?

The collapse of the Soviet Union triggered wars across Central Asia and the Caucasus as ethnic groups sought independence and the mafia clans who had been the communist leaders of yesteryear seized power and stole on an unparalleled scale in history.

Sonny's dad, the Great Leader, screwed up when he came to power in the early 1990s. His war against Armenia, intended to unite support behind him, was a disaster causing thousands of refugees and loss of the multi-ethnic Nagorno-Karabakh region. Michael Corleone now manipulates this catastrophe to create his national siege mentality of repression and justifying criminalizing of critical thought in his gulag. Then there's the endless bending of the truth about the historic massacres by all communities going back more than a century.

Don't expect an Olympic Truce while Sonny is giving the orders.
His annual review of his army, his tanks, his rocket launchers and his artillery is jarringly memorable of the old Red Square May Day military shows with the geriatrics saluting on Lenin's tomb. Michael displays his menace alone on the Presidential stand on the Caspian shore as his troops goose-step past for hours.

Sonny inspects his troops
Michael is buying vast amounts of military hardware and his Defence Minister says "Azerbaijan's flag will absolutely wave over the occupied territories in the very near future." 

Election days are busy times in Baku. The ballot box stuffers are busy delivering sacks of completed ballot papers to polling stations. They have to avoid colliding with what the election observers call "the carousel" of Presidential aides rushing around voting repeatedly. That's what happened in Michael's successful election campaigns of 2005 and again in 2013. The local organisations monitoring massive electoral frauds won't be busy again because Sonny has jailed them.

Looting Azerbaijan's oil wealth never stops. In December 2013 Global Witness reported the latest variations on the privatisation rackets of the 1990s. Yet again the economy has been captured by a small elite, dealing in billions of dollars worth of the country's only major resource.

Where's the oil money going?
Companies owned by a little-known but well-connected Baku businessman obtained a small slice of an offshore company owned by Azerbaijan's state-owned oil company SOCAR – and then sold it for a staggering profit of $118 million. That was a part of the $375 million he made from working with the country's state oil firm, without, say the Global Witness investigators, any evidence of "proper bidding processes or public tenders." Many of the businesses involved are hidden in offshore havens.

Global Witness also revealed that little of the oil wealth was reaching the majority of the population. They quoted a United Nations report that "Azerbaijan spends much less of its GDP on health than most countries in the world" and one result was "relatively high child and maternal mortality rates." A year later SOCAR responded: The allegations were "groundless and biased."

Global Witness and Human Rights Watch appealed to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) to expel Azerbaijan. Membership of EITI recognises companies, governments and civil-society groups committed to promoting transparency about revenues from energy extraction – and upholding individual liberties and press freedom.

On April 14, EITI’s board agreed and Azerbaijan was downgraded from full member to candidate. To have its membership restored, Baku needs to “ensure that civil society in Azerbaijan can participate in the EITI in a meaningful way.”

THE BRASS KNUCKLES distorted his face into balloons of blood and it took a moment to locate his eyes amongst the swellings. A group of thugs had burst into the human rights office of journalist Ilgar Nasibov in Nakhchivan in August last year and beat him unconscious.

What brass knuckles do to a human face
Mr Nasibov suffered severe head trauma, broken cheekbones and nose, broken ribs and one eye was damaged. On the way out they wrecked his office. He was previously injured in a hit and run incident. This time, they nearly killed him.

Sonny's crackdown increases in severity as his "European Games" get nearer. His judges hand down more heavy sentences on local journalists. Michael has invited the foreign press but Sonny has written the rules. "Accreditation will be cancelled should the representative violate the rules of accreditation, working against Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, independence, interests and sovereignty," say his enforcers.

Sonny is chillingly clear about the Family's view of press freedom. “Any media person found spreading distorted information on Azerbaijan, thus unfairly representing the country’s interests will face the full force of the law." Sounds like a great opportunity to get exclusive interviews with their imprisoned colleagues. Did the IOC have a hand in this?

Two of the world's bravest athletes were 200-metre medal winners Tommie Smith and John Carlos who used the 1968 Mexico Olympics to highlight the oppression of Black people in the USA.

Brave Tommie Smith and John Carlos
Brave athletes this year might dare to write the names Khadija or Leyla on their vests under their branded sportswear, to be revealed at the end of their competitions and especially if they reach the medal podium. They can add one more name, Rasul for human rights lawyer Rasul Jafarov, jailed on May 16 for six and a half years. Sonny's tame judge found him guilty of the usual stuff, illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion and abuse of office - whatever that is.

Rasul's real crime has been to call for a “Sport for Rights” campaign to raise awareness on Azerbaijan’s human rights record in the run up to these European Games. He has been in jail since last August and the Corleones have not forgiven that he organised the "Sing for Democracy Campaign" at the time of the Eurovision contest in 2012.

The English and Irish officials employed in these Games dismiss human rights outrages as "politics" that cannot be allowed to interfere with their sport and enviable lifestyle. The CEO of the event, Simon Clegg, worked for the British Olympic Association, is a longtime pal of Lord Seb Coe and tells the London Independent he was aware of the country’s reputation before accepting the post but had seen no evidence of authoritarian behaviour, adding that he was “focused on the sport and not any political issues."

Hickey and Clegg: Handmaidens to the Dictatorship
Clegg added: “I walk out in the street, I walk around freely, and I can only come back on what I see and what I experience here but it is an incredibly free society. It’s a wonderful place to live and I’m very focused on what I have to deliver on behalf of the president of the country and that is delivering a highly successful inaugural European Games.”

Clegg is echoed by Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone who plans a race in Baku next year. Asked if he would "check out the human rights record in Baku," Ecclestone responded: "We have. I think everybody seems to be happy. Doesn’t seem to be any big problem there."

Bernie will be expected to visit the tomb and looming statue of the National Leader, the Father of the Nation. It is likely that sports officials, athletes and even teenage swimmers will be directed to pay homage, for the benefit of local TV.

They can be comforted by remembering the toppled statues of Stalin, Lenin, Saddam and, after dark, can surreptitiously whisper in the Athletes village Percy Bysshe Shelley's wonderful poem from 1818, Ozymandias.

 I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away"

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