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Leaked Zoom meetings reveal homophobia and discord among Azerbaijan’s opposition

18 May 2020
Rafig Manafli was forced to step down from the National Council's coordination council after footage of him stating that he regretted that Adolf Hitler ‘did not exterminate the gays in 1941-1945’ leaked online.

Leaked videos from online meetings of Azerbaijan’s opposition National Council of Democratic Forces appear to show homophobic attitudes and a hostility to other opposition parties within the block’s top ranks. 

On 13 May, two videos from an online video conference on the Zoom application held a day before were leaked online. Two other videos from a meeting on 5 May in which Ali Karimli, the leader of the opposition Popular Front Party was present, were leaked on 17 May. 

One video showed leading members of the coalition speaking about the importance of queer rights to their Western supporters while one member remarked that they regretted ‘that Hitler did not exterminate the gays’.

Other videos showed members taking aim at rival opposition parties, leading to outrage among those parties’ leaderships.

The videos were published and received widespread coverage by several pro-governmental media outlets. 

The National Council has said the videos were taken out of context and even doctored, and have accused the government of illegally recording and leaking the videos in order to discredit them.

Two members of the National Council’s Coordination Centre have so far resigned over their comments.


‘I regret that Hitler did not exterminate the gays’ 

In the first video to be released, Gultakin Hajibayli, a former MP and member of the National Council’s Coordination Centre, warned other members that ‘the number one priority for the West is the rights of sexual minorities, the rights of undesirables’.

‘Undesirable’ (uzdenirag), literally meaning someone or something it would be better not to encounter, is a derogatory term in Azerbaijan for queer people which originates from Soviet-era prison slang.

Hajibayli went on to refer to US-based Azerbaijani journalist and queer rights activist Ismayil Jalilov as an ‘undesirable’.

In a recent post on Facebook, Jalilov accused Gabil Mammadov, a vlogger and vocal government critic of calling and warning him not to ‘attack’ Popular Front Party leader Ali Karimli. He said Mammadov mocked his sexual orientation.

He also criticised Eldaniz Guliyev, a member of the National Council’s Coordination Centre, for suggesting he was gay because his mother refused his sexual advances. Guliyev had been using Jalilov’s name as a derogatory euphemism for being gay while accusing the ReAl party and their leader, Ilgar Mammadov, of being gay.

Jalilov said in a comment that the situation ‘takes a toll on me and my husband emotionally every day’. 

Discussing Jalilov’s post during the online meeting, Hajibayli mocks Jalilov. 

‘I am very sorry, he said that “my husband and I have been under a lot stress due to this terrible incident for several days”, she said, repeating ‘my husband and I’ with a laugh. 

In response, Rafig Manafli, another member of the Coordination Centre and a member of the opposition Civic Solidarity party, called Jalilov a ‘male whore’, adding that he regretted that Adolf Hitler ‘did not exterminate the gays in 1941-1945’. 

Talking to BBC Azerbaijan on 14 May Hajibayli admitted that she used ‘harsh’ and ‘rude’ expressions though added that she was talking about ‘a specific person, not about sexual minorities’.

‘I have written an apology in this regard. If someone in Azerbaijan, a member of a sexual minority or group, applied these words to themselves then this is wrong’, she said. 

Manafli told Meydan TV that his words about Hitler were ‘unfortunate and inappropriate’, though he stressed that he would not apologise to Jalilov. 

‘I cannot accept his demonstrative promotion of LGBT people’, he said. 

Jamil Hasanli, the chair of the National Council, who also was present in the meeting, wrote on Facebook on Thursday that the video did not show the whole conversation. 

‘Such inadmissible expressions, especially the speech of Rafig Manafli, were strongly protested during the meeting and it was brought to his attention that such terminology was unacceptable and contradicted the principles of the National Council’. 

On 16 May, Eldaniz Guliyev and Rafig Manafli resigned from the National Council’s Coordination Centre. 

Javid Nabiyev, an international advocacy officer at queer rights organisation the Nefes LGBT Azerbaijan Alliance condemned the remarks by  Guliyev and Manafli. 

‘Human rights are universal, interconnected, reciprocal, and indivisible rights enjoyed by all human beings, regardless of their differences or similarities. Anyone and any institution that threatens these principles should be criticised no matter if it is from government or the opposition side’, Nabiyev told OC Media.

‘We demand that political parties and organisations not include LGBTI issues in their political games and not spread hate speech.’ 

‘Of course, everyone is entitled to the right to free speech and expression. However, that freedom cannot legitimise ideas that are based on and justify an ideology that has killed millions of people — Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses, political prisoners, homosexuals, and others!’, he concluded.

Despite this, Nabiyev called on the authorities to investigate the recording and leaking of the call and to prosecute those involved if a ‘cybercrime’ was committed.

Statements about opposition parties and media channels

On 14 May another video from the same online meeting was released in which Gultakin Hajibayli criticised the opposition ReAl and Musavat parties. 

She said that ReAl Party leader Ilgar Mammadov had ‘ended as a politician, his party has ended’. She continued that he had turned into a laughing stock and that ‘society will not accept him after this under any circumstances’. 

[Read more: Azerbaijani activists react with scepticism to ReAl party acquittals]

Hajibeyli continued with the Musavat Party, accusing its members of not supporting Popular Front Party leader Ali Karimli enough.  

She said that one of them wrote that highlighting Karimli’s internet problems would obscure the arrest of Tofig Yagublu, a prominent member of Musavat.

‘ReAl’s fate awaits them to a greater or lesser extent’, she said.

Jamil Hasanli added that while ReAl ‘still gained something falling into this situation, while these miserable [people] did not get anything for that’. 

Hajibayli then replied that the Musavat also ‘got something from migrant trafficking’ and ‘gained much in Europe’. 

[Read more: Azerbaijan’s opposition in hot water over German migrant trafficking scandal]

On 16 May, Musavat party leader Arif Hajili asked ‘some members’ of the National Council to apologise for ‘their behaviour’. 

Natig Jafarli, executive secretary of the ReAl party, said that he did not want ‘to give a broad answer to Hitlerites who are not young’, calling the National Council a ‘nonexistent institution’. 

In the third video, released on 17 May, other members of the National Council, including Ali Karimli, talk about friendly media channels, noting that ‘we have two fairly strong resources in our hands’ — referring to journalists Ganimat Zahid and Sevinj Osmangizi, which they said they had ‘strengthened’. 

In the fourth video, members scolded Altay Goyushov, a professor of history and former leading member of the ReAl Party, who recently had a public spat with journalist Sevinj Osmangizi.

‘A cybercrime by the government’

The scandal around the videos has been broadly covered by pro-government media outlets, with many MPs and members of pro-government parties condemning the National Council.

Siyavush Novruzov, Deputy Executive Secretary of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party told news agency APA that the council themselves connected the closed meeting to a live stream. 

At the end of the first video, journalist Ganimat Zahid, the anchor of YouTube programme ‘Azerbaycan Saati’ (‘Azerbaijan hour’), is heard saying: ‘be careful, we are live’. The National Council has responded that this was edited into the video. 

Both Jamil Hasanli and Gultakin Hajibayli have accused the government of being behind the leak, calling it a ‘cybercrime’. 

Leyla Aliyeva, a visiting scholar at the Russian and East European Studies Centre at Oxford University, said that the government was likely using the leaks in order to distract attention from the economy.

Aliyeva told OC Media that an impending economic and social crisis and expected devaluation of the national currency meant that ‘social protests are a real perspective’. 

Because of this, she said that one of the main goals of the government was to neutralise opposition leaders and to sow discord among the opposition. 

‘By making these records publicly available they perform two tasks: first is increasing strife within and preventing unity in the opposition camp, and the second is discrediting the opposition in the eyes of the public’, Aliyeva said.

‘This is a very tricky move, and basically they achieved their goal, at least partially.’ 

‘But on the other hand, all these videos showed the values of the political culture [of the National Council]’, she said.