Azerbaijan: Stop the vicious campaign of gendered smears and reprisals against women activists

The Azerbaijani authorities must immediately put an end to a despicable campaign of gender-based violence against women human rights defenders and activists, and investigate and bring to account those responsible for it, whether they be private individuals, state officials or members of the security forces, Amnesty International said in a briefing published today.

The briefing documents a systematic attempt to defame and silence women activists or their activist partners. On the one hand, they are subjected to smear campaigns and accused of being “bad wives” or “bad mothers.” On the other hand, they are blackmailed by the hacking of their social network accounts, and the publication of private conversations, personal data and materials of a sexual nature. There have been at least 15 such cases in the last two years, and their number is growing.

“The pattern and methods of these gendered reprisals and the fact that the targets are women who have exposed human rights violations or been critical of the authorities, strongly indicates that the Azerbaijani authorities are either directly responsible or complicit in these crimes. It is the repressive government of Azerbaijan that stands to benefit from these dirty methods,” said Natalia Nozadze, Amnesty International’s Researcher on South Caucasus.

The pattern and methods of these gendered reprisals and the fact that the targets are women who have exposed human rights violations or been critical of the authorities, strongly indicates that the Azerbaijani authorities are either directly responsible or complicit in these crimes
Natalia Nozadze, Amnesty International’s Researcher on South Caucasus

“We saw these dirty games played against one of the country’s leading investigative journalists and former prisoner of conscience Khadija Ismayilova years ago, and we are seeing it again on a broader scale.”

Amnesty International said that anonymous Telegram channels are publishing information likely to have been obtained covertly by security forces tasked with hacking the accounts of women activists. These same channels are widely believed to be backed by the authorities.

“This is part of a deliberate strategy to muzzle critics of the government and suppress women’s activism. By shaming and blackmailing these women activists, the authorities believe they will renounce their lawful activism or pressure their partners to do so,” said Natalia Nozadze.

The organizers of this year’s International Women’s Day march in Baku, which was dispersed by security forces, have been targeted. Narmin Shahmarzade’s private conversations were posted online in March 2021, as were the hacked private photos and messages of Gulnara Mehdiyeva.

In a particularly harrowing case, Amina Rustamzade, wife of activist and former prisoner of conscience Ilkin Rustamzade, attempted suicide in July 2020 following personal attacks on her such as an advertisement on an escort site bearing her contact details, and repeated threats to expose her private life.

“But the persecution doesn't stop there. Gender stereotypes are used to publicly shame and discriminate against these women activists, branding them as “bad wives and mothers” or “mentally unstable”. This endless stream of smear echoes from pulpits, official podiums and TV screens. Sometimes even illegal wiretapping is used to support these “accusations”,” said Natalia Nozadze.

Gender stereotypes are used to publicly shame and discriminate against these women activists, branding them as “bad wives and mothers” or “mentally unstable”
Natalia Nozadze, Amnesty International’s Researcher on South Caucasus

The women activists must be allowed to exercise their rights and carry out their legitimate activism free from harassment or reprisals.

The Azerbaijani authorities must ensure this campaign of gender based violence and discrimination targeting women activists is immediately ended and conduct a prompt, impartial and effective investigation into each and every known incident, as well as into other violations of their human rights, such as of their right to privacy. They must identify and prosecute in fair trial proceedings anyone suspected of being culpable or complicit in such acts, whether they are private individuals or members of security services or other state officials.