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The internet is not free in Azerbaijan: A letter to president Ilham Aliyev

Today Baku will host the Internet Governance Forum. Today the president ignores the truth about the lack of freedom in Azerbaijan.

Dear Mr. President,

As a citizen and former prisoner of conscience, I am glad that Azerbaijan is hosting the Internet Governance Forum. Since freedom of speech is a central issue at such a forum, I'd like to take this opportunity to address you.

You once suggested in a speech that the internet is free in Azerbaijan. I am sure you will repeat this message at this global forum. It is true that people in Azerbaijan are free to use the internet, but it is also a fact that they can be severely punished afterwards for doing so. We have reports indicating that the government monitors all our internet communication carried through Azerbaijani providers without acquiring a warrant or notifying the individual or provider. Today many of our fellow citizens do not dare to speak out against your policies, online or offline. You have successfully managed to silence them.

People in Azerbaijan live in fear. We fear for our lives, we fear for our jobs, we fear for the lives and jobs of our fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, we fear for our friends. We fear every time when someone close to us dares to disagree with you. We also pay a high price when we dare not to fear.

Before 2009 I had criticized you mostly online. Then I was attacked in the centre of Baku. I was arrested and later sentenced in a show trial on fake charges of hooliganism. My father died while I was in jail, his health was deteriorating since the day of my arrest. I could not be there when he was placed in hospital and I was not there the day I lost him. Some of my relatives and friends lost their jobs. They were told that they are too close to “the enemy of the state”. Now, many people I knew are afraid to communicate with me online and offline and I can understand them.

In our interconnected world, civil society, states and businesses from across the world must work together to thrive in our global information society. This is the meaning and the spirit of this Internet Governance Forum. Internet governance can’t properly serve sustainable human, economic and social development without freedom of expression, the rule of law and efficient democratic governance.

Today there are more than 80 political prisoners in Azerbaijan, according to a report by the Council of Europe’s rapporteur on political prisoners. The murder of journalists such as Elmar Huseynov, who was killed in 2005, has never been properly investigated say commentators and observers. The Tax Justice Network estimated that more than 48 billion USD have been transferred from Azerbaijan to off-shore accounts. Our economy depends almost exclusively on oil and gas and is not sustainable, unless we succeed in developing other industries. Current levels of corruption and monopolization and the inefficient use of public funds, lead us towards a potential economic and social disaster unless we change course. Instead, you have spent five million USD to renovate a park in Mexico City in order to put a statue of your father, former president and former KGB general Heydar Aliyev. Your government spent hundreds of millions of USD to host the recent Eurovision Song Contest in Baku. Meanwhile, some people in various regions of our country still do not have secure supplies of water, gas and electricity. Recently we saw – online – how a high-ranking member of your ruling party apparently tried to sell a seat in parliament for a million dollars. For this nobody has been punished.

Azerbaijan needs urgent, real and deep reforms. We must transform our society of fear into a society of opportunities. As someone who was jailed for using the internet to criticize you and your policies, I have experienced an inconvenient truth – the internet is not free in Azerbaijan and it is definitely not free from fear. Today, our fear is one of the main sources of your power. And the impact of it is pervasive. Its consequences are damaging. Fear undermines economic development and discourages creativity and curiosity, but its main casualty is human dignity. Our citizens can’t think beyond the physical survival of their families, so poor are the choices open to them. They deserve better than to live in fear. This country set up the first democratic parliamentary republic in the Muslim world in 1918. Since 2001, it has been a member of the oldest club of democracies in Europe, the Council of Europe.

You have been president of Azerbaijan since 2003, and during the upcoming presidential elections next year you have no constitutional right to run for a third presidential term. A referendum on constitutional change was held in March 2009, after you were sworn in as president under the old constitution. The law does not have retroactive application in this case and this amendment can be applied only to the next president. So you are limited to two terms under the old constitution. It is time to think about gradual and legitimate transition of power in the country.

I have nothing against you personally, despite my recent unjust imprisonment. It is merely my humble attempt to remind you of your responsibility to pre-empt any unpredictable and violent changes, such as occur in countries where critical voices are ignored for too long. Controlling the internet and spreading fear has not helped autocrats around the world to keep power and responsibly transform their societies.

Finally, I realise that you may ignore my letter. You have behind you a large army and powerful police. I have only words and the internet. I will continue, though, in my civic duty to remind you and our society of the truth about life in Azerbaijan. I believe that our country will become a better place to live once we all accept the truth of our situation and act together for change. Only then will we be able to hope for a free internet, perhaps it will herald a free country.