Azerbaijan has strictly curtailed public movement as part of its efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The borders are closed, and citizens need to notify the police before they leave their homes.
It has been difficult for average Azerbaijanis to get used to the restrictions, which were implanted quickly. For dozens of journalists who have been banned from leaving the country for years, however, the new rules have come as a bittersweet reminder of how the government has limited their rights and liberties.
When the Azerbaijani government ordered people to stay home on April 5, 19-year-old Fatima Movlamli felt a pang of déjà vu.
“Thanks to the government, I became a double isolated one from the world after the coronavirus,” she says.
The citizen journalist learned she was banned from leaving the country in 2018, when she tried to travel to neighboring Georgia. Movlamli believes the restriction was put in place when she was detained for covering opposition protests, but she is not sure.
She is one of dozens of journalists and opposition politicians who have been banned from leaving the country. Lawyer Zibeyde Sadigova, who represents two journalists under the ban, Shahveled Chobanoglu and Anar Mammadov, says the restriction is illegal.
The bans on movement followed the 2014 crackdown of civil society in Azerbaijan.
Many people who were banned from travel were involved in NGOs, or Meydan TV, Radio Liberty and were summoned for questioning as witnesses. There were no specific defendants in such cases. “The freedom of movement of those questioned as witnesses (with some exceptions) was restricted. The aim was to silence the critical press and individuals. It was to keep journalists under pressure. They wanted to keep in fear that a criminal case could be launched against them at any moment,” Sadigova added.
“A citizen's right to leave the country may be restricted only if he is detained in accordance with the Code of Criminal Procedure or if any restraining order is imposed on him - until he is released, the restraining order expires or the restraining order is revoked,” Sadigova says. The lawyer added that for the people under the ban, freedom of movement has been restricted without a court order.
Sadigova noted that following a recent decision by the European Court, some restrictions have been lifted, but the ban remains in force for other journalists, including Chobanoglu and Mammadov.
"During the trial, the representative of the Prosecutor's Office also admitted that they ban people without court decisions. The courts are not fair in these cases. They do not take into account the Constitution, the Migration Code or the Convention. They justify the decision of the Prosecutor's Office, albeit under various excuses,” Sadigova says.
Journalist Shahveled Chobanoglu, 51, was banned from leaving the country in 2014, pending an “investigation” into his work.
At the time, Chobanoglu was the editor for several government-critical newspapers and he worked with the Azerbaijani service of US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
He believes the ban was linked to an investigation into Radio Liberty’s bureau in capital Baku. The bureau was closed in 2014.
“In December 2014, I was summoned to the Grave Crimes Investigation Department. They asked me about my activities. In the end, they said that we are conducting an investigation. You cannot leave the country until that process is over.”
Six years later, the investigation is still underway and Chobanoglu has missed family milestones, like his daughter’s accomplishments at university in Turkey.
Today, as his fellow citizens come to terms with the de-facto country-wide ban on travel, Chobanoglu says people have become more sympathetic to his plight.
“Many people didn't understand me when I spoke about my grief before. But now the whole world really understands what it means to be in isolation. They know what it is like to lose the right to go anywhere,” he says.
He adds, however, that his restrictions cut deeper because they are illegal. “When it happens illegally, it has a worse effect on people and causes anger. The purpose of the current isolation is to save people, and the purpose of my isolation is to destroy a person.”
Sociologist Sanuber Heydarova thinks that the current situation with the coronavirus is a good opportunity to empathize with people who have been banned from leaving the country for years.
Heydarova notes that when a person has a passport and a place to go, they feel free.
“Even if these barriers are not directly in the form of handcuffs on people's arms or in the form of a wall around them, they imprison people's minds; and this creates a prison effect for those living with these restrictions, walking in a restricted area - no matter how large.”
Journalist Anar Mammadov says he has become so used to the ban on leaving the country that people’s outrage today seems “strange.”
For the journalists under the travel ban like Anar Mammadov, the restrictions to their movement is tantamount to “psychological trauma”.
“The fact that there are restrictions is a psychological trauma for me. My freedom has been restricted, and that worries me. My right to rest has also been violated. I want to go on vacation with my family, but I can't. They don't want to go anywhere without me. This means that not only me but also my family is being punished,” he notes.
Mehman Aliyev, the head of Turan News Agency, notes that in Azerbaijan public figures and journalists have been under pressure for 20 years.
He thinks that the pressure on journalists and the control of civil society are nothing more than a desire to show that the government controls everything.
“They want to send the message ‘we control society, we protect the system,’” Aliyev says.
For Chobanoglu, the policy has damaged his career and his health.
“I have not been told why I have not been able to leave the country for five years. Both my journalistic work and my health have been damaged. My doctor once said ‘This is a death sentence against you. There is no other name.”