The Seventh Internet Governance Forum will be taking place in Baku, Azerbaijan from 6 to 9 November 2012. writer Zooey Schock spoke with veteran activist Dr Leyla Yunus about internet freedom and the ability to organise in post-Soviet Asia.

Zooey Schock (ZS): Tell me what you do and how long you’ve been doing it?

Dr. Leyla Yunus (LY): I am a doctor of history from Azerbaijan. I started campaigning for human rights activity under the Soviet regime, not as a woman human rights defender, but as a human rights defender.

In 1994, some of us created the Society of Women of Azerbaijan for Peace and Democracy and the Institute for Peace and Democracy (IPD). I have been the IPD chief since 1995. The institute has five departments: Human Rights Protection, State and Society, Conflict and Migration Studies, Women’s Issues, and Young Peoples’ Issues. We found, though, the the women’s issues department was attracting too many women who needed support, so in 2001, we created the first, and still the only, Women Crisis Centre (WCC). In the next ten years, about 10,000 women applied to the WCC, and it is through that work that I became a women human rights defender.

ZS: How often do you use social media or the internet in your capacity as chief of the IPD or personally to organize campaigns?

LY: I cannot say that we use social media widely in Azerbaijan. In Indonesia, for example, social and internet media is more widely than in Azerbaijan. It is a former Soviet country, and our generation is not using it widely. Of course, IPD has a website, a Facebook page and we put report and statements online.

In the last 4-5 years, we have tried to campaign online for international support, such as when the Minister of Internal Office filed a lawsuit against me. We received a lot of supportive letters from the international community which we posted on Facebook. Various international organizations sent statements to the Procurator and Ministry of Internal Office., which were all were published in the papers. The representatives from the Minister told my lawyers, “it is so many letters, each day it is tens of letters, please stop”. That was important.

Then in August 2011, the Azerbaijan government destroyed my property, my house with a bulldozer during the evening. They destroyed all the contents, archive, lighting, computers, tables chairs, everything, we could not save anything. You can’t imagine in another country such violation of property rights, but the international community responded (see video here).

Personally, I have, for example, signed a letter to the President of Pakistan, part of an internet campaign to support women activist, and I often sign such letters online. But this was one of the first such campaigns in Azerbaijan.

This meant that the letters from international human rights organizations, and the letters from the officials in the USA and the European Union have a bigger impact.

ZS: What training do you think is necessary, or do you undertake?

LY: We organize training seminars for our colleagues, HRDs and especially WHRDs, from countries such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and we have organized a seminar for internet security.

There are countries where the situation is more difficult than it is in Azerbaijan, such as in Chechnya, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. WHRDs and civil society activists there are working under strict government surveillance: all emails, letters, are not safe and the government reads all of them.

I am not an expert in the internet, but we have such experts in United States of America and in Europe, who also speak Russian, that we can organize these seminars in Russian language. So we invited these women human rights defenders—and we’ve been having these seminars during last 5 years, two times a year.

And we organize week-long seminars on personal security and internet security. So internet security for our activities as WHRDs is today, very important, and we continue the seminars because of this.

This year, we were unable to hold the seminar in Baku, but held it in Tbilisi, because last year we had a problem. In one seminar, someone gave information to the Ministry of National Security, which we found out a couple of months later, when I noticed that the methods we had been using were not helpful. Now our trainers say that maybe we should do it in some town in Russia, but I thought it would be better in Tbilisi. So in Tbilisi, we will have representatives from Chechnya, from Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and we will continue such seminars for internet security.

ZS: So, there was a person spying on your seminars?

LY: Yes. It was a young person, and I think that it’s good to encourage the youngsters into working, every time, very openly. They are part of the civil society, and they are very welcome, anyone who comes, and tries to work, or help, maybe translating something into English, for example.

You know, I lived in Soviet times and it was a common practice then, when you know someone is working for the government, in your office for example, in my experience, I wouldn’t say “Stop! Go out.” I understand that it is a good thing that I recognize him or her, and I know. I try to give her information that they already know, and save some information that they don’t already know.

For a person from outside Azerbaijan, it might be difficult to understand, but I have been living in an occupied country. The ruling regime has occupied my country.

In the Azerbajian-Armenian conflict —the enemy destroyed houses, killed and raped people, and the citizens could struggle with weapons.

But now, the government is doing the same. And you cannot struggle with weapons, because it will be illegal, and you will go to prison. So, when they rape, torture, destroy houses, arrest people, you cannot struggle with weapons. But you wage resistance in another way: with words. In some situations, when you are under occupation, your single weapon is the word. It is the internet. It is information. It is the pen.

ZS: Do you have any particular concerns in regard to your safety online?

LY: You know, I know that in my office and in my email, someone is listening. I am not sure about Skype, but I know that my emails and my letters are read. But I am not afraid of this. When I had meetings with the representatives from the embassies, in my office, and I told them “you know, they listen to us.” I am not afraid, and I want them to listen and read, because in all my letters, in all my discussions, meetings, first of all, I respect the legislation. I respect international legislation, I respect Azerbaijani legislation, I demand the rule of law, and of Human Rights.

Second, this open networking is also support for my security, because this way the regime knows I have connections to the international Human Rights community, with colleagues all over the world. I am very well known, my activities have support, and it is dangerous to arrest me, to put me in prison. I have support, and there will be a campaign supporting me.

ZS: Do you feel that government policies that are in place, for things like cyber-crime prevention and cyber-security, are doing what they ought to do? Are they protecting people at all?

LY: No, I don’t think so. The population of Azerbaijan is about 9 million, with 3 million living in the capital, Baku. More than 15 percent of our territory is occupied by Armenian troops, and about 10 percent of the population is internally displaced and or refugees.

So, if we speak about the internet, it is in Baku (1). In the last 3 or 4 years, it has become more popular, due to social networks, and people using it for writing. But this is still in the capital, among young people, and some opposition activists.

Most people aren’t even thinking about the internet. This is a poor country. And still our government is just starting to make it safe, to control the internet. They have special departments that control independent civil society organizations, HRDs, the opposition, and they have a lot of time to do this!

ZS: What do you think could be done, either by civil society organizations, or by the government or anyone else, to help WHRDs to gain more experience in using the internet, and more importantly, to protect themselves while they are using it?

LY: It is necessary to share experiences, to organize seminars—to stay for a couple of weeks in a country, with an NGO that does this work, which has experience, to learn, and then to return home and do the same, When you have no such experience, no training, and no resources, you need to do your work, with some connection and support from your colleagues in neighbouring countries. Sharing experience, giving more information, it’s important.

ZS: Do you know if any civil society organizations are being involved, in your country, in writing or helping influence legislation on internet security.

LY: It’s just the start for us. We have the Institute for Safety and Freedom of Journalists, and Human Rights Club, which are two young civil society organizations. They are startng to work on internet security, trying to influence on legislation…

ZS: Is government engaging them and giving them a voice in crafting the legislation at all?

LY: No, government ignores them, and any kind of proposals from civil society. Every time civil society drafts legislation, about issues, about the internet, about mass media, every time the government ignores it. The criminal code still includes prison for journalists for defamation. We have six journalists in prison today. Three HRDs and six journalists in prison.

ZS: Do you think that the jailing of journalists and bloggers and others that speak out and say things that the government doesn’t like, do you think that they are being made an example of?

LY: Yes, it is to discourage others from doing the same things, that is the main task.

You see, the government wants people to not think, to do nothing. Since 2008, we have bloggers arrested who put information online, or who criticize, or satirise the government. For example, there was a blogger arrested who had said that the 2010 elections were falsified, and published evidence of falsification. They also arrested bloggers, who published a video of a donkey giving a press conference. It shows that the government is afraid of the internet and understands that it has great power.

The chief editor of the Talysh language newspaper, Hilal Mamedov, was arrested for publishing a traditional-style song («Ты кто такой? Давай до свиданья!»), in Russian, on the internet, which inspired an online anti-Putin campaign in Russia

Mamedov was interviewed on Russian state television about the song and Azerbaijan traditions. He said the song was popular because of the power of the internet, the power of the people to resist something. And two weeks later he was arrested, where he stays now, accused of being an Iranian spy. He can receive a life sentence. He was tortured, beaten, but he did nothing, just put a song on the internet. His arrest was a result of the popularity of the song.

ZS: Do you think that internet activism or anything really, could be done for him, or anyone in as serious a situation as he is?

LY: I am sure that international support saved the lives of Fatullayev and also the “Donkey Bloggers,” Milli and Hajizadeh. Now I think it is more and more important to have big international support, maybe using the same song, for Hilal Mamedov. Because the bloggers received 2 years for their donkey video, but as I mentioned, Mamedov can receive 15 years, or for his whole life. They are using his Iranian ethnicity as an excuse to take action, helped by the conflicts we are having with Iran.

The bloggers, in their video of the donkey, they translated it into English. But in this song, and in other activities, it is only in Azerbaijan language, and Russian. And it did not go far from former Soviet Union. This is also one of the problems: English Language. Mammedov’s campaign isn’t as far reaching, because it wasn’t available in English.

ZS: So would you say that the language barrier is also a large problem, in addition to a lack of experience in internet activism as well?

LY: Yes, I think that it is one of the barriers, because so much material is in English. But the young generation is more fluent in English. So there are barriers of language as well as barriers of access to the internet.

It would be great if Azerbaijan would become part of the world, become more open. You know, I feel that the government is trying to close this country, to put it behind an iron door.

The government also tries to control the internet; they read everything that you write. The idea is to return to something that we had in Soviet times, where everything was under government control.

ZS: It surprises me how little news we hear about things going on in Azerbaijan.

LY: I cannot imagine this sort of thing happening during Soviet times (other than Stalin’s time), that it would be possible to come and destroy your house. You know, in Soviet times, you could be arrested, you could go to prison, die in prison, but it was by legislation. Because in Soviet times we had horrible legislation but working against it, I would at least go to prison through a legislative process.

But now, in our criminal code, there aren’t such articles, that say you are working against the system. So people go to prison as “hooligans”, or for drugs, as spies , and they destroy houses just because they want to. So there is no rule of law.

Here, there is better legislation, say, than in Iran. The laws on the books are good — if only they were respected, I could use it, others could use it. But we have no rule of law, we live in the middle ages. In a court case awhile ago, a representative of the government said that President Ilham Aliev orally said certain things at a meeting: just orally. These aren’t the middle ages, what does that mean? Where is the legislation about this? How do these oral pronouncements override the written law?

The internet is very important. But again, there is the language, and obstacles of the internet not being widely available. Also we have no big circle of bloggers who will be involved in all of this.

ZS: What would you suggest as initial steps in order to increase WHRDs access to the internet? What sort of training would be helpful?

LY: I think it would be helpful to share more information. Maybe a website where there would be information about WHRDs in different countries. Someone interested could open this website, and provide information with WHRDs and women’s rights in Azerbaijan. There we could send out reports and information, and so on.

It is also important to organize—somewhere not far, perhaps in somewhere neighbouring such as Turkey—seminars for activists, to teach them how to organize on the internet. Then to invite one or two people to stay for a couple of weeks, people with great experience organizing such internet campaigns to support victims of trafficking, and so on. To teach. It can then create a starting point for Azerbaijan non-governmental organizations.


This article is a part of APC’s “Connect your rights: Internet rights are human rights” campaign financed by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency .

Picture by Wikimedia Commons. Used with permission under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

(1) Penatration in Azerbaijan is 44% (source: According to, the Azerbaijani Internet population is young, mostly male, and largely concentrated in urban areas: more than 55 percent of the users are people in the age range of 16 to 24, and approximately 70 percent of the users are male.

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