Media Defence has filed an application to the European Court on behalf of Gulnara Mehdiyeva. To read the blog summarising the case, click here.
The Azeri campaign against journalists
The context in which Gulnara Mehdiyeva works is a difficult one. Azerbaijan is one of the most restrictive environments for freedom of expression in the world. There is no free press. Independent journalists and activists are harassed, blackmailed and jailed on absurd grounds. Authorities target the family members of those who have gone into exile and block all independent news websites.
Increasingly, journalists, activists and dissidents are also subject to online harassment. This ranges from abuse on social media and weaponised trolling campaigns, to hacking and digital surveillance. Some report the use of customised malware to hack into their devices. In other words, these are personalised phishing attempts designed to compromise their passwords and undermine their ability to publish, interact and organise online.
It is almost always unknown assailants who commit such attacks. However, those targeted are consistently government critics, human rights activists, journalists and political dissidents. Many international observers have therefore concluded that the attacks are likely connected with the government and other authorities. Digital forensics organisation, VirtualRoad.org, has even linked IP addresses used in specific cyberattacks to internet infrastructure connected with the Ministry of Interior.
Women and LGBTQIA+ journalists and activists are at particular risk of gendered harassment. Many have been subject to surveillance and hacking or had intimate images or private conversations leaked online. Others have had their faces imposed on pornographic imagery, with anonymous users re-posting the content even as the women manage to have the images taken down. The use of such tactics is often timed for specific moments when women journalists are prominent in public conversations or active in organising events. It constitutes a clear attempt to shame, discredit and silence them. Amnesty International has called for these campaigns of gendered smears to stop.
It is against this background that we are now representing Gulnara Mehdiyeva – an activist and journalist reporting on LGBTQIA+ and women’s rights issues in Azerbaijan. Ms Mehdiyeva is a prominent figure in Azerbaijan: she is editor-in-chief of the country’s only LGBTQIA+ publication. She is also a founding member of advocacy groups dedicated to assisting women and girls subject to domestic violence. As a result of her work, she has been arrested multiple times and singled out for mockery and criticism by many in conservative media.
In March 2020, Gulnara Mehdiyeva organised a protest march to coincide with International Women’s Day to protest against the high rates of gendered violence in Azerbaijan. Azeri authorities have consistently sought to clamp down on such events. The year before, when Ms Mehdiyeva organised a similar protest march, police summoned her to the station. There the authorities forced her to delete information about the event from her social media accounts, while police visited her colleagues at their homes.
Yet despite such intimidation, the protest went ahead as planned on 8 March 2020. A large crowd turned up, yet almost immediately, police intervened. They used force to disperse the protest and arrest many protesters – hitting, kicking and throwing protesters to the ground, with many sustaining serious injuries.
Three days later, Gulnara Mehdiyeva was the victim of a cyberattack. She first realised what was happening when she received a series of text messages alerting her that someone was trying to access her accounts. When she tried to log in to her accounts immediately, she realised that she was too late. The hacker had already gained access to her Gmail, Facebook, Telegram and Instagram accounts. As her WhatsApp and computer archives were backed up through her Google account, she realised that data was also compromised.
Ms Mehdiyeva regained access to her own accounts with the assistance of her friends. Only then did she realise the extent of the damage. From the account analytics, she could see that the attacker had prepared large bundles of data for download – likely including her email and social media archives, photographs and other data.
The hacker also deleted three Facebook groups dedicated to LGBTQIA+ and women’s rights, which Ms Mehdiyeva administered. Two of these groups had been private and LGBTQIA+ individuals and domestic violence survivors were using them as safe spaces to share private stories and experiences. The third hosted content of the LGBTQIA+ magazine of which Ms Mehdiyeva is editor-in-chief. It had had over 8,000 followers. The attacker had deleted all three of these groups. Ms Mehdivyeva lost the content, along with the membership base. Moreover, the attack exposed the identities of those in the private groups – placing many people, including minors and other vulnerable individuals, at potential risk.
Gulnara Mehdiyeva made contact with us just days after the cyberattack. We immediately referred her to VirtualRoad.org, an organisation which has investigated cyberattacks against Azeri journalists since 2016. Analysing her accounts, VirtualRoad.org identified two IP addresses the hacker used in the attack. One of these addresses had been used in other attacks against independent media in Azerbaijan. What’s more, VirtualRoad.org had already linked it to internet infrastructure connected to the Ministry of Interior.
In the weeks that followed, there was more evidence of potential state involvement. Just days after the cyberattack, police officers contacted almost 50 members of one of the deleted Facebook groups – one dedicated to women and girls who were victims of domestic violence. As a private group, none of its members should have been identifiable to anyone outside the group. The police visited many who were not activists, had not attended the protest, and had no apparent connection to women’s rights or other activist groups.
In most cases, police officers provided bizarre explanations as to why they were contacting the individuals. This included claiming, for example, that a criminal had escaped from somewhere nearby and was suspected of hiding in the house. Police summoned some of the women and girls to local stations. All of them had to answer general questions about themselves and their family members. No further explanation for the visits was ever provided.
Developing the legal case
Gulnara Mehdiyeva’s domestic lawyer, Zibeyda Sadigova, collated this information. With our support, Sadigova submitted a complaint to the police demanding that they investigate the attack. We outlined the events, including the evidence of state involvement, and provided the police with the two IP addresses which the hacker had used. However, the police simply refused to investigate. They never contacted Ms Mehdiyeva or collected any evidence. Ultimately, they claimed that they lacked the “technical capacity” to investigate the IP addresses that she had provided and suspended the case entirely.
Ms Mehdiyeva challenged that suspension before the domestic courts. We provided emergency funds to support the domestic proceedings. However, the Azeri courts refused to engage with her complaint. Without giving reasons or addressing the substance of her arguments, the courts upheld the police’s decision at every turn.
Application to the European Court of Human Rights
In May 2021, we filed an application to the European Court of Human Rights on Gulnara Mehdiyeva’s behalf. Our application focussed firstly on the police’s failure to investigate the cyberattack. We argue that their refusal to take any action violated Ms Mehdiyeva’s rights to privacy and freedom of expression. Human rights law requires that states not only refrain from violating privacy and freedom of expression, but also create a safe environment in which individuals can exercise both rights. This must include effective investigative procedures where such blatant and gendered attacks take place.
In addition, we argue that there is sufficient evidence to find that the authorities were actually involved in, or facilitated, this particular cyberattack. This amounts to a further violation of Ms Mehdiyeva’s rights. Further, we argue that she was clearly subject to a homophobic and sexist attack. That attack, and the authorities’ refusal to respond, constituted direct discrimination on the basis of sexuality and gender.
Our application aims both to vindicate Ms Mehdiyeva’s rights and achieve broader gains. We hope to expose the systematic cyber campaigns being waged against critical voices in Azerbaijan. We hope to develop the caselaw, such that when cyberattacks occur, including against women journalists, there are clear legal standards. There should also be detailed guidance as to what such investigations should entail in order to be human rights compliant.
Since the cyberattack, Gulnara Mehdiyeva has attempted to re-establish all three deleted Facebook groups and regain the membership that she lost. While individuals have re-joined, she reports that participants are now seriously concerned about the group’s security. Where they once functioned as platforms for women and girls to speak openly about domestic violence and share information and support, most are significantly less willing to participate. Similarly, LGBTQIA+ members are less willing to disclose personal information or participate in discussion.
Meanwhile, the cyber harassment of journalists and activists continues. In March 2021, hackers accessed the social media accounts of one of Ms Mehdiyeva’s colleagues, Narmin Shahmarzadeh. The attack happened just one day after she played a central role in organising another IWD march against domestic violence. Shortly after, anonymous accounts began to publish pornographic content, claiming it depicted Shahmarzadeh, along with fake conversations containing sexual content. Ms Mehdiyeva’s lawyer, Zibeyda Sadigova, is also representing Shahmarzadeh. We look forward to working together to support any domestic proceedings and, if necessary, to bring her case to the European Court.
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