Critics of Ilham Aliev's regime accuse the government of using sexually explicit material — including images of wives and daughters — to strong-arm its opponents.
For some of Azerbaijani's opposition figures, Big Brother has moved into the bedroom, with the result being the distribution of "sex tapes' on social networks.
Often the videos are filmed by cameras hidden in the victims' homes without their knowledge. Once recorded, the intimate images are "shared" — along with nude photographs and/or personal correspondence — onto a Telegram channel or Facebook accounts.
And it's happening with increasing frequency. In just the first couple months of this year, at least 10 women have fallen prey to this kind of campaign, compared to 15 in 2020, according to Arzu Geybulla, an activist and the founder of Azerbaijan Internet Watch, a website documenting these incidents.
The victims tend to be outspoken feminists, but sometimes men are targeted through the bodies of women.
The three most recent cases of cyber stalking date back to late March and target opponents of Ilham Aliyev's regime. One such case involves Lacin Veliyev, an activist in the Azerbaijan People's Front party, who has been detained since March 20.
"He fainted when his interrogators showed him an intimate video with his wife," says Rufat Safarov, director of the Azerbaijani NGO Defence Line. "He then said he was ready to sign any confession on condition that the video not be made public."
According to lawyer Neimat Karimli, his client, Lacin Veliyev, has been under pressure for several months to testify against one of his party leaders.
The opponent was targeted with a video showing his daughter having sex.
"The intimate documents disseminated in these attempts at blackmail often show women practicing oral sex," says Narmin Shahmarzade, a 22-year-old feminist activist who has herself been the victim of cyber stalking. "It's playing on the patriarchal prejudice that a moral woman does not perform oral sex; only a prostitute does."
On March 28, it was Jamil Hasanli, president of the National Council of Democratic Forces party, who was targeted with a video showing his daughter having sex. The opponent immediately pointed the finger at Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, whom he accuses of orchestrating these publications in order to exercise "political blackmail" intended to make him give up politics.
On March 30, opposition blogger Mahammad Mirzali, a refugee in France, reported that he was being blackmailed over intimate videos of his sister, who remained in Azerbaijan. Already the victim of an ultra-violent attack on March 14 in Nantes, Mahammad Mirzali has no doubt about where the threat came from.
"The Azerbaijani State Security Service is behind this crime attacking the privacy of my sister," he tells Le Monde. "This is just one of the methods of repression used against critics of the Aliyev clan. They have been used for a long time, but the blackmail with intimate videos has recently intensified."
All the Azerbaijani victims of cyber stalking contacted by Le Monde point the finger at the regime. Gulnara Mehdiyeva, a 31-year-old feminist activist, recounts in detail the extent of the means deployed for cyber harassment. Shortly after the closed group of 300 activists she administers on Facebook was hacked, 40 of them were visited by the police. Her Gmail account was also hacked and when she tried to regain control through a recovery code sent to her cell phone, the operation failed.
"It was the hackers who received the code, because the mobile operators deliver our information to the police," Mehdiyeva says.
Arzu Geybulla agrees. "Mobile operators use intrusive surveillance technologies such as "black boxes' to transmit specific information to the services," he explains. His organization, Azerbaijan Internet Watch, has been able to trace the IP addresses involved in numerous hacking attempts targeting the opposition. Some of them can be traced to two Azerbaijani ministries, the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Communications.
The authorities formally deny any involvement in the cyber harassment campaign and say they are investigating the complaints filed with the police. "This is a campaign to discredit our secret services. These activists are marginal and pose no risk to our political system," says a source close to the government, who wished to remain anonymous.
The attitude of the authorities is causing a stir among the elite. A prominent academic, Elvar Mirzaoglu, announced on March 30 that he was leaving the ruling New Azerbaijan Party to join Jamil Hasanli's party because of the incident.
"I am very concerned about the silence of the party of which I am a member, and very worried for my children and relatives," he wrote in a Facebook post. "Private life in this country is not protected by the government. On the contrary, it becomes public."
This gesture did not snowball.
"Nothing will stop this behavior, because this government has excessive powers and will continue to persecute critical voices," says Arzu Geybulla.
And yet, if nothing is done about it, Big Brother is bound to become more aggressive still.