In Azerbaijan, intimate images are used to silence political activists

The spread of exposed photos of journalists and activists on social networks has increased. Many Azerbaijanis, as well as women, suspect that the country’s authoritarian government is retaliating against them for speaking out. The government denies these claims.

Women’s Rights Defender Narmin Shahmarzadeh (right) protests against the government’s use of intimacy as a means of revenge. (Photo: Ulvia Ali)

In mid-February, Azerbaijani activist Bakhtiyar Hajiyev announced that he would not even drink water during the month-long hunger strike in response to his illegal arrest. 

Over the next few weeks, a number of channels called “Bakhtiyari Hajiyev Disclosure” began to appear on the “Telegram” social media network. It turned out that these channels were created in order to embarrass Hajiyev by distributing a large number of materials stolen from his personal phone, including photos, conversations, and audio recordings with people he had sexual relations with.

In groups with thousands of followers, women with whom Hajiyev has been in a relationship for the past 7 years, most of whom are activists and journalists, have also been exposed.

Several women are shown in inappropriate poses or naked. It was “discovered” that others simply took pictures with Hajiyev in public places. Some “Telegram” channels have published captured old photos of women who support the activist or disagree with the government. Most of the posts shared women’s home addresses or contact numbers, as well as candid conversations and open correspondence.

Social activist Bakhtiyar Hajiyev. (Photo: Ulvia Ali)

Some married or engaged women in “Telegram” groups were accused of having a love affair with Hajiyev. One of these women pleaded in the group, “I am married.” “Would you like it if my husband saw this and my family fell apart? Delete it now, this minute!”

Kathy Pierce, professor of communication at the University of Washington, who studies the use of technology for political purposes in authoritarian countries, as well as in Azerbaijan, noted that such content “has a special power in conservative societies, especially for women who are generally required to be modest and chaste.” 

“While blackmailed men certainly suffer, female victims suffer more.”

One of the women exposed in such campaigns on Telegram is now in hiding. Feminist activist Gulnara Mehdiyeva, who is trying to coordinate help for women, notes that another ran away from home struggling with suicidal thoughts.

“She wanted to commit suicide after the materials were published,” Mehdiyeva said.

Screenshot showing the results of searches related to Bakhtiyar Hajiyev. March 2, 2023

Tunay Aliyeva, a famous Azerbaijani TV presenter who moved to the United States, took a picture with Bakhtiyar in a public place 7 years ago. However, the two have never been close, so he was shocked when he saw his picture on the cover of “Bakhtiyar’s porn” shared on “Telegram”.

Aliyeva said that she considers the distribution of this material to be a serious feminist issue.

“The headlines and all the articles are meant to expose women,” he added. 

“The target is not only Bakhtiyar. The target is an Azerbaijani woman.”

Narmin Shahmarzade, a 24-year-old women’s rights activist who openly supports Bakhtiyar, posted semi-nude photos and a sex recording on one of the Telegram channels with the caption “This is Narmin Shahmarzade”.

N. Shahmarzadeh told OCCRP that the photos were first released before the International Women’s Day event in 2021, after hacking social media accounts. N. Shahmarzade helped to organize the Women’s Day event.

“These photos were taken from my Facebook and e-mail address. They share it again because we actively support Bakhtiyar,” he said.

“I don’t feel bad or depressed anymore because I’ve been through it. But I know what other girls are going through,” he added.

Is it the government that “whistleblowers”?

It is difficult to prove who is behind the “exposing” channels, but in recent years it has been observed that private content posted on the Internet in Azerbaijan has increased. Many people are suspicious of the Azerbaijani government and report that activists and journalists are often targeted.

Victims of such campaigns told OCCRP that some of the content posted on Telegram was just information on their phones and had never been shared on social media before. Several victims noted that the broadcast conversations were falsified before publication.

Professor Pearce of the University of Washington said: 

“The amount of material they were able to obtain and the sophisticated nature of the attack all point to an agency with resources far beyond what a private individual could possess.”

Azerbaijan Police at the last International Women’s Day event. March 2023. (Photo: Ulviyya Ali)

The Azerbaijani government has denied claims that it had any role in the campaign against Hajiyev. A spokesman for the country’s powerful Interior Ministry told pro-government media that they were investigating several complaints from targeted women, but did not provide details when OCCRP reached out to the spokesman for comment. 

The head of the press service, Elshad Hajiyev, also refused to answer other questions regarding the campaign against B. Hajiyev.

Meanwhile, international technology and human rights groups have found credible evidence in several reports that the government, and particularly the Ministry of the Interior, is involved in organizing campaigns to capture the data of its citizens.

Internet giant Meta has announced that it has dismantled a “sophisticated” cyber espionage group that targeted government critics, journalists, and democracy supporters in the ministry last year with methods such as phishing and hacking. Qurium, a non-profit organization specializing in digital forensics, also published a report in 2020 showing that phishing attacks against leading human rights defenders and journalists originated from the digital infrastructure of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and were coordinated by an employee nicknamed “sandman4812”.

Azerbaijan was also among the main users of Pegasus spyware within the framework of the 2021 Pegasus joint journalism project coordinated by Forbidden Stories.

While preparing information about the project, OCCRP determined that more than 40 Azerbaijani government activists, journalists, and their families, including Hajiyev, were targeted for using spyware. Pegasus can gain full access to a target’s phone and can be used to read their messages, access photos and passwords, and even take confidential audio recordings.

Journalist Arzu Gheibulla, the founder of the “Azerbaijan Internet Watch” organization, which deals with internet censorship and harassment in the country, said that online attacks are increasing.

“I can note that this situation has become more apparent in the last five years.”

Feminist activist Mehdiyeva has already been hacked by her own government. In 2020, private phone calls in which he discussed mental health issues with friends were leaked. Like Shahmarzadeh, her talks were revealed when she helped organize the International Women’s Day event.

“They tried to present me as a schizophrenic,” Mehdiyeva recalls.

Later, “Gurium” revealed evidence that Mehdiyeva’s accounts were hacked by “sandman4812”, who is believed to be working for the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Azerbaijan.

Mehdiyeva was threatened with more exposure during attacks against women in “Telegram” recently: 

“This is still nothing. They will recognize you too, Gulnara Mehdiyeva”, one of the posts said.

He told OCCRP that he is always ready for new attacks. “Nothing has been shared yet. I have nothing to share about Bakhtiyar. But I expect everything.”

Becoming a target through “Telegram”. 

In 2020, Telegram gained great popularity in Azerbaijan after becoming an important platform for information transmission during the 44-day war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Journalists and activists have flocked to the network because it promises more security than Facebook, where many profiles have been hacked.

The Telegram network has presented itself as a secure alternative to Facebook, as it offers end-to-end encryption of messages and calls. Unlike Signal, another encrypted messaging platform, Telegram allows people to “create channels” where they can provide quick access to hundreds or even thousands of readers.

“After knowing that our Facebook messages are already in danger and can be leaked very easily, the civil society started looking for safe messaging channels, and thus “Telegram”… entered our lives,” said activist Mehdiyeva.

But it has a weak side: “Moderation in Telegram is very weak, very weak. “On Facebook, for example, the immediate reaction is possible, especially to materials with pornographic content,” he said. 

Pavel Durov, the founder of “Telegram”, attributed the lack of moderation to the fact that the platform does not apply censorship to users. “Instead of putting an end to false ideas, censorship often makes it harder to fight against them,” he said in a statement in 2021.

But for women whose private photos are on display, this hand-in-hand movement makes it hard to resist. Three of the Ifsha channels on Telegram have been closed, but at least 18 more channels continue to operate.

At the International Women’s Day event, protesters defend equality in Azerbaijan. March 2023. (Photo: Ulviyya Ali)

A. Gaybulla says that “Telegram” never responds to messages about channels that broadcast pornographic content.

“We never received an answer from them,” he said. “There was no answer, but only these pages remained.”

An investigation by BBC News last year found that major groups and channels shared thousands of “surreptitiously taken, captured or leaked” photos of women from at least 20 countries. A month after the BBC published information about 100 pornographic images on “Telegram”, 96 of such images remained on the social network. “Telegram” did not take any action, even when BBC journalists reported that child pornography was presented on the platform.

Telegram did not respond to requests for comment.

Law enforcement agencies did not protect Azerbaijani women either. According to Azerbaijan Internet Watch’s latest annual report, effective legal remedies against government-sponsored digital attacks and harassment are not provided.

“Despite factual reports of targeted and coordinated cyber attacks against activists, the government has so far failed to investigate or ensure effective legal action,” the report said.

Tunay Aliyeva said that it is not promising to make an official complaint to the police about the material published about her in “Telegram”. Instead, he publicly appealed to Mehriban Aliyeva, the wife of the authoritarian head of the country, and asked her to intervene on behalf of Azerbaijani women. However, he has not yet received an answer.

Activists noted that they could not get an answer to their complaints about the seizure of Mehdiyeva and Shahmarzade’s accounts. They appealed to the European Court of Human Rights and claimed that the Azerbaijani authorities not only did not intervene, but may even be involved in the attacks.

Bakhtiyar Hajiyev also appealed to the court. One of his lawyers, Elchin Sadigov, informed the “Abzasmedia” website about this. Still, the distribution of photos may have already had the intended effect. Thus, Hajiyev stopped his hunger strike after the photos began to leak.

The damage to “exposed” women is just beginning. Shahmarzadeh says she finds it hard to find comfort knowing the material is still out.

“We all live as if we are always in danger,” he added.

Authors: Kelly Bloss (OCCRP) and Habib Muntezir (Meydan TV)

Ana səhifəNewsIn Azerbaijan, intimate images are used to silence political activists