By Sabrina Winter and Fatima Karimova
We tracked down some of the regime critics. Meanwhile, the German government wants to pump Azerbaijani gas into Germany.
His life is in danger, Samir Ashurov tells the judge. If he were deported to Azerbaijan, he would be arrested, he explains to the Regensburg Administrative Court in November 2021. Azerbaijan is a dictatorship that persecutes its critics and hardly allows a free press. Yet Germany regularly deports people to Azerbaijan – more often than any other European country. And it wants to get natural gas from there. Ashurov has been protesting against this dictatorship and its ruler Ilham Aliyev for years. The regime has put him on a blacklist; he is not safe there, he says in court.
Ashurov was to be proven right.
Outside the courtroom, Ashurov is a family man. One who barbecues with his daughter, jumps off the three-meter board with her at the swimming pool and drives his car along Bavarian country roads.
In the courtroom, Ashurov is an asylum seeker. An already rejected one who has to explain to the court why he and his family cannot return to Azerbaijan under any circumstances.
His lawyer shows the judge photographs. They depict Ashurov at protest rallies. The judge asks:
“To what extent are you involved in exile politics in Germany?”
“Why do you think you would be at risk if you returned to Azerbaijan?”
“To what extent do you think this involvement might have come to the attention of the Azerbaijani authorities in the first place?”
Samir Ashurov answers as best he can. He speaks Azerbaijani. An interpreter translates.
Even before that, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, BAMF, had decided that the Ashurov family would be deported to Azerbaijan. What Samir Ashurov presented was “inconclusive, contradictory, unrealistic and implausible,” the court cites the BAMF decision.
After 2 hours and 41 minutes of hearing, the judge comes to the same assessment. Ashurov, his wife, his daughter and his son should leave Germany. The court does not believe that Ashurov is as much of a danger as he claims. “A relevant risk of persecution in the event of return […] [cannot] be established,” the court writes in its reasoning for the verdict.
Five months later, in March 2022, the police wake the Ashurov family up from their sleep. At 3 a.m., the officers handcuff Samir Ashurov and put him in a police car. Samir’s birthday is in a few weeks. His wife Nurana Ashurova and the children already have presents for him. But they stay behind in Grafenau, Bavaria. The next day, the four land in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. In April, not even a month after the deportation, the Azerbaijani police arrest Samir Ashurov.
Samir Ashurov is one of eight men who returned to Azerbaijan from Germany within the past year and a half and were arrested there. Most of them had applied for asylum in Germany as political persecutees. What unites the men is that they were protesting against the Azerbaijani dictator Ilham Aliyev. How can it be that politically persecuted people get no protection in Germany, are deported and arrested in their country of origin? VICE and the Azerbaijani exile media Mikroskop Media spent months researching the cases of the men from Azerbaijan, talking to relatives and lawyers – and asking German authorities what went wrong.
The dictator and his gas
Even before Samir Ashurov came to Germany, he was involved in the opposition ReAl party in Azerbaijan. During protests in Baku, he holds up posters that say that Aliyev is a dictator. That’s true, you might think, but it’s an affront to the regime. The police arrest him, lock him up for a month, release him, then arrest him again and lock him up for two months. His wife Nurana Ashurova recalls, “The policemen threatened him that if he continued to protest, he and we, his family, would suffer.” After Ashurov is released, he flees to Germany with his family.
In the summer of 2022, Germany entered into a strange dependency: It now wants to pump gas here from Azerbaijan so that no one has to freeze in winter. It wants to be independent of Russian gas. So, for once, they change the dictator for energy deals: Ilham Aliyev instead of Vladimir Putin. Azerbaijan instead of Russia. The main thing is natural gas! Because they negotiated themselves into this dependence, the German government cannot say a critical word about Azerbaijan. Not even when Azerbaijan attacked Armenia in September of this year.
The Foreign Office is squirming around concrete statements about who attacked whom. In mid-September, a spokesman for the ministry said at a government press conference:
The information provided by both sides cannot be independently confirmed and verified due to the lack of independent observers on the ground. In this respect, I cannot comment further here.
Even weeks later, no progress has been made with the assessment at the Federal Foreign Office. In response to our inquiry, a spokesman on the phone says that they have nothing to add to the previous statements.
While the Foreign Office remains loudly silent, the Interior Ministry is deporting people to Azerbaijan. 141 people were this year alone until August. That’s according to a response to a parliamentary question from Bundestag member Clara Bünger of Die Linke, obtained exclusively by VICE. In the same period, the BAMF decided on 582 asylum applications. In only 46 cases did the authority decide that a person could stay.
The German government knows that opposition figures, journalists and human rights activists have to suffer repression at the hands of Azerbaijani authorities after being deported. And what does it do about it? The government points out that the BAMF regularly adjusts its guidelines. Only: the last time this happened was in May, months before Azerbaijan’s attack. Apparently, Azerbaijan’s aggression does not change anything for asylum procedures. Neither does apparently knowing that seven opposition deportees are in jail change anything.
There are many indications that in several cases opposition members threatened with persecution were de facto extradited to the Azerbaijani persecution authorities by being deported from Germany. This is outrageous and points to serious deficiencies in the BAMF’s decisions,said Clara Bünger, a member of the Left Party.
The federal government must do everything in its power to ensure that those affected are released and can return to Germany if they so wish, she demands.
“They didn’t believe us”
After receiving threats from Azerbaijani police, he booked flights to Germany, his wife recalls. In August 2018, he lands with his family. The four of them apply for asylum. Ashurov’s children, then eight and nine years old, learn German, go to school, make friends. Nurana Ashurova is training to be a kindergarten teacher. If you scroll through Samir Ashurov’s profiles on Instagram and Facebook, you get an impression of his life in Germany: He takes his driver’s license test, stands on the shore in flip-flops and feeds ducks, eats at McDonald’s with his family. And he protests.
In Berlin, he sleeps several nights in a tent in front of the Bundestag. In Munich, he stands next to banners that read, “Ilhalm Aliyev’s dictatorship is a threat to Europe!” In court, too, he lists the demonstrations in which he took part: Cologne, Giessen, Nuremberg. “There were a lot of demos,” Ashurov says. Some he organized himself. At others, he gave speeches. Once he protested directly in front of the BAMF in Nuremberg. The BAMF took note of his protest. It was taken into account and examined in the asylum procedure, writes the authority on request.
“Nevertheless, they did not believe us,” says his wife Nurana Ashurova. She sits in her small apartment in Baku and talks via Zoom about her time in Germany. At the time, she was also present in court and reported her husband’s political involvement there. But that didn’t help. Today, Samir Ashurov is 38 years old and is in custody in Azerbaijan. What is he accused of?
First, he is arrested for aggravated assault. Later, the police changed the charge to: public incitement to brawl. Then they add another charge: assault with a weapon. Ashurov is accused of stabbing someone with a knife. Ashurov learns the name of the man he is accused of injuring only in custody, his wife says.
Corrupt state, faked deeds?
The other men, who once lived in Germany and are now in Azerbaijani prisons, are accused of similar acts: Knifing or drug smuggling, what Azerbaijani critics are usually said to have done. The few media critical of the government that report on Azerbaijan write about how normal men are suddenly declared drug barons or knifemen – without having broken any law beforehand. The regime is framing opposition men for acts they have never committed, these articles say. Whether the men really had drugs or knives in their hands cannot be verified. Their families say no. The police say yes. Azerbaijani courts will decide what the state believes.
Judith Herbe, a German lawyer for migration law, believes it is likely that such acts are fabricated:
“I think one is allowed to doubt the reasons for which deportees are arrested. I’ve often heard that people have been planted with drugs in order to be able to prosecute them.” Azerbaijani state officials fabricate evidence, Herbe says. “To the outside world, the state can then show: We arrested a criminal, but in reality there is no truth to the charges.”
A look at rule of law rankings also offers little hope for fair trials. In the new Freedom House Index, which measures how free and democratic a state is, Azerbaijan is rated “not free.” The state gets as many points as Yemen or China. On Transparency International’s corruption index, Azerbaijan ranks far behind, 128th out of 180.
First deportation, then trial
Two of the former asylum seekers have already been sentenced by Azerbaijani courts. One of them is Punhan Karimli. He is alleged to have bought narcotics. His situation is particularly absurd: because while Karimli is serving a six-year prison sentence in Azerbaijan, a German administrative court is still hearing whether he should be allowed to stay in Germany after all. His asylum proceedings are continuing. “The fact that the plaintiff was already deported before the oral hearing is not the normal case of an asylum dispute,” explained a spokesman for the Würzburg administrative court. Karimli had been deported because neither he nor his lawyer filed an application to postpone the deportation. They had filed the complaint, but the application was missing, a spokesman explains.
In a European comparison, Germany deports the most Azerbaijanis. This is according to figures that Mikroskop Media has requested from the Azerbaijani authorities.
The German government knows exactly how bad the human rights situation is in Azerbaijan. Already in a report from 2020, it wrote:
People are imprisoned for political reasons and pressure is exerted on government critics. The judiciary is not independent.
While we are researching, Samir Ashurov’s Azerbaijani lawyer is also arrested. Later, an Azerbaijani court decides to place him under house arrest.
What is the German government doing?
Can German authorities and courts be so wrong as to deport people at risk without realizing the danger? VICE and Mikroskop Media asked the German Foreign Office, the Ministry of the Interior, and the BAMF for comment. All of them were initially reticent and explained that they could not comment on individual cases.
When we ask again, it becomes clear that the German authorities are well aware of the harm that deportees face in Azerbaijan. The BAMF writes that it is aware that opposition members have been subjected to politically motivated repression after deportation – by Azerbaijani authorities. The German Foreign Office says that the German Embassy in Azerbaijan is monitoring court cases against people who have been deported from Germany.
“Towards the Azerbaijani authorities, the Foreign Office is addressing these cases,” writes a ministry spokeswoman. The findings from Azerbaijan, she said, are made available by the Foreign Office to the interior authorities, foreigners authorities and administrative courts. The Interior Ministry also knows “that in individual cases there were detentions in Azerbaijan after deportation from Germany.” So German authorities know about the consequences of their decisions. But they do nothing – or rather, nothing that has any effect.
Do the authorities know, then, whether the arrests are related to the political involvement of the deportees? As with the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, the German government is ducking out of the way. In response to our inquiry, the Ministry of the Interior writes that it can neither confirm nor rule out a connection. The BAMF says there are no confirmed findings. “The political commitment put forward by Mr. Ashurov was taken into account in the asylum procedure,” a spokesman says.
“Do you assess the decision to deport Samir Ashurov as correct at this point in time?” we wanted to know from the BAMF. It is a yes-or-no question. The BAMF does not answer it. Instead, it points out that the decisive factor is what findings were available at the time. When we ask the court about Ashurov’s verdict, there is a very similar note in the mail.
“Hi. Why didn’t you answer my letter?”
Since Samir Ashurov has been in custody, his wife has been fighting for his release. She protests together with other women in front of the German embassy in Baku and holds up posters. Her children are also there. They wear T-shirts with Samir’s face printed on them. The daughter holds up a sign to the camera. In German, it says: “Don’t be silent about the arrest of political activists!”
Nurana Ashurova’s brother and sister help finance her and her children. Every ten days she is allowed to visit her husband in custody. Then the two sit across from each other, holding a telephone receiver. They are allowed to talk to each other for an hour. They cannot touch each other. A pane of glass separates the two. From time to time, Nurana brings her children with her. Afterwards, Samir is always dejected, she says.
“Please read this letter to the end. I am the wife of Samir Ashurov. My husband is a political activist.”
“I want you to take care of the issue of Samir. Inform the relevant authorities to release Samir from prison. I want your help.”
These are the emails Nurana writes from Azerbaijan to German authorities. When some don’t reply, she tries again:
“Hi. Why didn’t you answer my letter? Are you ignoring the fact that Samir Ashurov is in prison?”
“Please help Samir Ashurov.”
In Germany, hundreds of Azerbaijanis are waiting for a decision on their asylum application. This drags on for weeks, months, sometimes years. Ravil Hasanov is one who is waiting. He has been living here for four years and repeatedly demonstrates against the Azerbaijani regime. He is tormented by the same fear as Samir Ashurov when he lived here: If he is deported, the Azerbaijani state will throw him in prison, says Hasanov.
Azerbaijanis in Germany anxious
He used to travel around Azerbaijan as a construction worker, working on construction sites for the Ministry of Transport. Hasanov was a member of the Popular Front Party, one of the largest opposition parties in the country, which consistently criticizes Aliyev. Sometimes, instead of showing up at work, he went to demonstrations. When his supervisor found out about it, he kicked Hasanov out. The police summoned him, threatened him and his family. So Hasanov fled to Germany with his wife.
Here, too, he protests against Aliyev. He suspects:
The regime wants to send the message with the arrests: We’ll manage to arrest you if you criticize us – even if you live in Germany.
The BAMF has already decided that he should be returned to Azerbaijan. This is because it could not identify Hasanov as holding a prominent position in the party. His descriptions were too sweeping. And: “A feared persecution upon return could also not be substantiated.” Hasanov puts it this way, “They didn’t believe me.”
The lawyer for migration law Judith Herbe estimates the chances in general as very low to get political asylum in Germany as an Azerbaijani. If someone has health problems or immigrates as a qualified specialist, the prospects of staying are greater, the lawyer explains. The fact that Azerbaijan started a new war against Armenia this fall also plays no role in asylum applications. Skilled workers are welcome to the government; critics of the regime, it seems, should stay away.
It has been known for years that Azerbaijan violates human rights and restricts independent reporting. Accusations of torture are also made from time to time. Jafar Mirzayev is among those who have suffered torture in prison, his Azerbaijani lawyer says. Before that, Mirzayev lived in Germany for seven years until he was deported. His children were born here. Now they live in Azerbaijan, a country they hardly know.
Three months after Mirzayev was deported to Azerbaijan, police arrested him in a supermarket. He is accused of selling narcotics. Mirzayev denies that. And Mirzayev has never had any criminal record before, according to his lawyer. His brother and his lawyer are sure that he is in prison because of his political activity.
More than a year ago, when Mirzayev’s asylum application had already been rejected, he and his German lawyer made one last attempt: he wrote to the Petitions Committee of the German Bundestag. There he asked to stay in Germany – despite all the resolutions against it. The Petitions Committee could have helped Mirzayev. In September 2022, when Mirzayev has long since been deported and locked up in a cell, the committee says: Nothing could be done.
Collaboration: Paul Schwenn
Read the article in German on VICE