As I was attending the Stockholm Internet Forum in Sweden on October 22, I stumbled across the following tweet in my feed:
Mehriban Aliyeva has been nominated for the Peace Prize of the Swedish Peace Agency http://sia.az/en/news/social/507273-mehriban-aliyeva-nominated-for-peace-prize-of-swedish-peace-agency … #Azerbaijan #Aztwi
My heart skipped a beat for a second when I imagined the Nobel Peace Prize and Mehriban Aliyeva in one frame. To avoid an unnecessary heart condition, I went online to look up the award and the organization behind it.
The Swedish Peace Agency (SPA) describes itself on its very poorly designed website as “a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting a culture of peace by organizing international voluntary projects for people of all ages and backgrounds.”
The website claims that the organization was founded in 2010 and works in four areas: human rights, minority rights, nuclear weapons and world peace.
“We defend the natural world and promote peace by investigating, exposing and confronting environmental abuse, championing environmentally responsible solutions, and advocating for the rights and well- being of people.”
Browsing through its rather confusing, newly founded website (2015), I also came across this beautiful description, capturing the goals and aims of the organization at its best: “SPA is an international organization committed to maintaining international peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations; promoting social progress, better living standards and human rights.”
The rest of the website is filled with vague platitudes and a glaring lack of detail. The organization supposedly takes pride in enabling thousands of volunteers to participate in community projects, but doesn’t specify which projects. No specifics regarding the dates of these projects or volunteers involved are provided either.
SPA claims to have done work in conflict zones where it purportedly provided analysis, education and resources to those working for peace. What conflict zones? What type of assistance has it provided over years? None of these details were available on the website.
After doing some further research, I found two separate Swedish Registry websites Ratsit.se and allabolag.se that listed SPA as a non-for-profit registered on March 3, 2011 at the following address: Parallellvagen 11E, 433 35 Partille, in Västra Götaland County of Sweden. The organization’s current address is shown as Järntorgsgatan 12, 413 01 Göteborg.
Another quick search with CentralOps shows that the website swedishpeaceagency.com was registered by Reza Aghapoor on September 14, 2015, only a few weeks before the organization announced its decision to nominate Mrs. Aliyeva. Interestingly, although it’s a Swedish organization, the website only has English content (its Facebook page, however, is mostly in Swedish).
Looks like the agency either made a poor choice in its effort to “promote culture of peace” or it adheres to different standards of peace and human rights.
SPA President Reza Aghapoor’s twitter account is full of hopeful and peaceful messages and life quotes, like the one below:
“I know that we have a long road to travel to rid ourselves of prejudice and greed. I believe that we the human race will achieve this and as we grow this dream just gets closer and closer all the time” [Signed Reza Aghapoor]
or like this:
“I have a dream that the day will come when we will help each other because it is the right thing to do. I have a dream that we are going to have peace on earth and that neighbor will help neighbor. My dream is that mankind will start working together to eradicate all the disease across the whole planet; and that no child will starve to death. The greatest thing for the future in my dream is that mankind will be as one…” which I found on the website of SPA.
Aghapoor’s profile on the website described him as a person who “possesses the wisdom, courage and ability to stand firmly against the evil forces responsible for the destruction of peace and harmony” and “capable to do some positive activities to mitigate human suffering and advancement towards the establishment of human right and restoration of peace and harmony for mankind.”
Perhaps it was this raving description of him that prompted me to write an email to the Swedish Peace Agency inquiring about the recent award. But the exchange that followed showed a different side of both Mr. Aghapoor and his organization at large where “helping each other” was not a part of the conversation.
On Twitter, Mr. Aghapoor reacted rather irritably, threatening to take me to court. Mr. Aghapoor has deleted those tweets since then, but I still have two screenshots of his tweets.
“Our board, as well as all journalists and public figures who took part in voting will individually take you to court”.
“Your accusations are uncharacteristic. I have downloaded everything you wrote online and have taken up your case to the court through my lawyer”.
The organization Mr. Aghapoor referred to is Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Azerbaijan Service. The radio published one story citing a brief published on APA.az, a state media outlet, about the award and the nomination of the first lady.
My attempt to get an answer from Mr. Aghapoor as to why he was targeting me was left unanswered.
Following our short twitter stunt, I decided to send a few emails and try my chances this way.
This was the first email I received from the SPA:
Camilla Petersson is the Board Secretary of SPA, according to the SPA website. A quick open source search yielded no results about this individual. In fact, I had a hard time finding out much about the board members of the organization. Even reverse images searches or TinEye did not help.
The same was true for Emine Aktas and William Freeman, also listed as board members. I did, however, correspond with a woman named Emine Aktas.
After receiving an email from Camilla Peterson, I replied cc’ing Mr. Aghapoor. You can see excerpts from that email chain below.
October 23, 2015
1. How were these women nominated in the first place? (Criteria for the nomination)
2. Who nominated them? Who nominated M. Aliyeva from Azerbaijan?
3. Do you think M.Aliyeva really deserves the price? Especially when her husband has cracked down on freedom and democracy in Azerbaijan? She has done nothing for "world peace" nor for "human rights" or the "minority rights". Can you please share with me the examples of any of these achievements?
4. How often do you give out this award? When was the last award and who were the winners?
5. When was the Swedish Peace Agency set up? Where are you based? How many people you have working for you? Who is on your board?
6. When did you start up your website? The domain name was only created last month and some of your social media links don't work.
7. And Reza Bey, my last question is to you. You said we should "remove" your name from the article. May I ask what is your role with the organization and why you want your name removed and who should we mention instead of you?
Four days later, I heard nothing from Ms. Peterson. I forwarded the email once again on October 27 and immediately received this terse reply from Mr. Aghapoor himself who said:
No answer followed. On November 3, I reminded Mr. Aghapoor that I was still waiting for the answer. Here is what I received next:
In my follow up e-mail, I asked Mr. Aghapoor to elaborate who those “activists, journalists, and public organizations” nominating the candidates were. I also reminded him about the remaining questions.
Mr. Aghapoor was not happy. He asked me whether I had “nothing else to do,” said that he was “busy” receiving “hundreds of emails” per day. Furthermore, he stated that if he spent his time answering all those emails in detail, “24 hours wouldn’t be enough for him.”
“This is all from me, and our website has the necessary answers,” Mr. Aghapoor wrote. “If it is in our fortune, we meet and talk about this in detail,” he signed off.
My next email was to Emine Aktas, from the Middle East department of the SPA.
This was word for word what newspapers in Azerbaijan wrote about the award. I wrote back asking the following questions:
1. Who nominated Mrs. Aliyeva?
2. How was the decision making process made? Meaning, after the nominations who decides on the winner? Is there a poll of some sort or the Swedish Peace Agency decided itself?
3. I am wondering whether you have considered taking into account how little she has done to help political prisoners in Azerbaijan? Doesn't this count as part of human rights and freedom of expression too? Would you reconsider your decision had your organization was aware of the on-going crackdown against independent rights activists and journalists in Azerbaijan and the undeniable role Mrs. Aliyeva has played in this crackdown?
And here goes an epic response:
The correspondence that ensued was far from pleasant. Ms. Aktas scorned me for criticizing Mr. Aghapoor and herself. “Mrs. Mehriban is very genuine, modern and an example. You are communicating in a very wrong manner. My vote is for Mrs. Mehriban, to a Turkish woman… I hope to God she wins,” Ms. Aktas wrote.
Furthermore, she directly threatened me: “You should know that one wrong word you write about our organization will take you to the international court. You can write whatever you want about the Aliyev family but do not meddle in our business. We do not care about the fight between the opposition and the ruling power [in Azerbaijan]. You should know that last week we took an Armenian lobby to court.”
In further correspondence, Ms. Aktas made the last few touches: “Corresponding with someone who cannot stomach the victories and successes of her country is mere stupidity.” I thanked Ms. Aktas again for her time but informed her that there was no need for the aggressive language and unless she had specific answers to my remaining questions, I would rather not hear back from her.
This is how an organization taking pride in tolerance, peace, and equality defended its decision to nominate Mehriban Aliyeva for a peace award, which is rescheduled from November to late December/early January 2016, according to OCCRP.
Who knows, perhaps it was this email exchange that pushed them to reconsider?
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Meydan TV's editorial policy.