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Khadija Ismayilova is one of the Azerbaijani journalists who was reportedly targeted.

A new report by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) alleges Azerbaijan has been spying on hundreds of local activists and journalists, including RFE/RL reporters, using sophisticated software that gave the government access to their phones.

Azerbaijan appears to have acquired Pegasus -- spyware that can record phone calls and read text messages, access photographs and passwords, track GPS data, and secretly make audio and video recordings -- from Israeli cybersurveillance company NSO Group, OCCRP said in the report, released on July 18.

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The report on Azerbaijan came as part of sweeping research the OCCRP did on the NSO Group showing a leaked database of up to 50,000 phone numbers believed to have been identified as people of interest by clients of NSO since 2016.

Based on the geographical clustering of the numbers on the leaked list, reporters identified potential NSO Group clients from more than 10 countries, including Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Togo, and the United Arab Emirates.

The OCCRP project made its assessment on Azerbaijan based on the hundreds of phone numbers of local reporters, activists, and opposition members that appeared in the leaked database of phone numbers that are believed to have been targeted by the Pegasus software.

While there is “no definitive proof” that Baku is an NSO client or that the leaked numbers represent people selected for targeting, OCCRP said “a preponderance of evidence suggests that this is the case.”

President Ilham Aliyev has turned Azerbaijan into one of the most repressive former Soviet states, cracking down hard on free media and the opposition during his nearly 20-year rule.

Critics have accused his authoritarian government of using a growing array of sophisticated surveillance technology to track members of the opposition and media.

The OCCRP, a consortium of investigative centers, media, and journalists operating in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Central America, said that forensic analysis confirmed that the phones of two Azerbaijani citizens on the list were infected with Pegasus software.

Furthermore, several other Azerbaijani citizens on the list, including prominent opposition members, had personal information from their phones leaked to the public.

In response to a question about whether Azerbaijan acquired its software, NSO Group told OCCRP it could not confirm or deny the identity of government customers “due to contractual and national-security considerations.”

However, it claimed that it does not allow its clients to abuse its software, which it said is only meant to surveil criminals and terrorists. The NSO Group also claimed that OCCRP’s conclusions were based on a “misleading interpretation” of the leaked data.

'Deliberate Campaign'

The OCCRP said that all but a few of the 245 Azerbaijani numbers identified belonged to journalists, activists, lawyers, and members of the country’s opposition.

Among them were five current and former reporters for RFE/RL, including Khadija Ismayilova, the broadcaster’s former Baku bureau chief and one of the nation’s most renowned investigative journalists.

Forensic analysis determined that Ismayilova's phone was ridden with traces of Pegasus software, OCCRP said.

Included in the broader leaked list of 50,000 phone numbers were those of journalists for media organizations around the world including Agence France-Presse, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, The New York Times, Al Jazeera, France 24, Mediapart, El Pais, the Associated Press, Le Monde, Bloomberg, The Economist, Reuters, and Voice of America, according to The Guardian newspaper.

Azerbaijan raided and closed RFE/RL’s Baku bureau in 2014 while its local website has been blocked inside the country since 2017.

RFE/RL has said the blockage of the site was "part of a deliberate campaign" aimed at silencing its reporting in the tightly controlled country.

In addition to journalists, OCCRP said it identified more than 40 Azerbaijani activists and their family members on the leaked list of supposed Pegasus targets.

The Azerbaijani activists first appeared on the list in 2019 when mass protests were held in Baku.

President Aliyev has ruled the oil-producing former Soviet republic with an iron fist since shortly before his father, Heydar Aliyev, died in 2003 after a decade in power.

He has repeatedly rejected criticism from rights groups and Western governments that accuse him of jailing his opponents on trumped-up accusations and abusing power to stifle dissent.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov

BILECA, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Ramzan Kadyrov loves a party.

The flamboyantly militant Chechen leader and his cronies famously clowned with a visiting Mike Tyson. He flew in former Brazilian soccer stars for a celebrity match against his own private team. And he hired Hollywood stars for his 35th birthday.

His critics and perceived opponents have had less reason to celebrate a regime marked by alleged political assassinations, kidnappings, and other systematic persecution.

Rights groups describe Kadyrov's 14-year tenure as ruthless and oppressive, petty and vindictive, and serially abusive of women and minorities.

But that hasn't deterred a local youth group in northern Bosnia-Herzegovina from adopting Kadyrov as the face of a summertime Chechnya Fest music festival that they say actually has nothing to do with Chechnya or its strongman.

They're using images of Kadyrov, in full military dress, in promotional materials on- and off-line to attract visitors to the festival in Bileca, in the Serb-dominated part of the country, on July 22.

"This isn't directed against anyone," an organizer from the Jezerina Youth Group, Vladimir Milidragovic, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "The festival is visited more and more each year, and from 200 visitors at the first festival we reached more than 2,000 [attendees] at the 2019 festival."

"People of all nations come here," he said.

Milidragovic said the festival -- headlined by "DJ Terrible" -- is humanitarian in its aim and proceeds will go to "socially useful activities."

Some of this year's money will go toward medical treatment for an unnamed local resident, he said.

So why Kadyrov?

Kadyrov, a ceaseless self-promoter on social media, is inarguably Chechnya's most recognizable man.

But Bileca is not home to an ethnic Chechen community, nor does it have any other obvious connections to Kadyrov or Russia.

Milidragovic said the Chechnya Fest's name stems from the way Bileca's other residents used to tease the "once-naughty young men from Jezerina" by calling them "Chechens" as a playful reference to the deadly serious rebels in southern Russia in the 2000s.

"We put it there, but we don't have anything against anyone," Milidragovic said. "Since the first festival started seven years ago we haven't changed the name and it's stayed to this day."

A promotional banner for Chechnya Fest was spotted on the highway between Sarajevo and the Adriatic Coast and its Kadyrov connection tweeted out this week by Montenegrin civic activist and publicist Ljubomir Filipovic.

Filipovic suggested it was even "more disturbing" that Trebjesa Brewery in neighboring Montenegro, which is owned by U.S.-based Molson Coors Beverage Company, was a sponsor.

Local representatives for Molson Coors did not respond to RFE/RL questions about the amount of the brewery's support for Chechnya Fest or its marketing association with Kadyrov.

Bileca is a town of about 10,000 on the tip of a scenic lake in Republika Srpska, the entity that along with the Bosniak and Croat federation makes up Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Its population is overwhelmingly Orthodox Serb, up from around 80 percent in previous decades to over 98 percent in the 2013 census.

The town of Bileca is supporting this year's Chechnya Fest with a grant of 500 Bosnian marks (around $295).

Mayor Veselin Vujovic called Chechnya Fest's organizers all "good Serbs and patriots."

He also said he wasn't aware that they were using any widely criticized Chechen strongman to promote their event.

WATCH: Disturbing Video Shows Police Seizing Chechen Woman From Shelter​

Disturbing Video Shows Police Seizing Chechen Woman From Shelter​
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"If that's the case, they'll have to change it without further ado," Vujovic said, adding that he didn't know who Kadyrov was. "If that character is there, they won't be able to put him on the posters."

But after being told that Kadyrov is a longtime loyalist of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the mayor said: "Then that changes things."

"When it comes to Putin, there's no dilemma for me," Vujovic said. "I have personal sympathy for him, because the man is a great leader."

Putin appointed Kadyrov to lead Chechnya in 2007, three years after Kadyrov's Kremlin-backed father was killed in a bombing.

Last month, Putin credited Kadyrov with turning a war-torn republic into "one of the safest" places in Russia.

"With your personal participation -- direct, sometimes really direct, personal participation -- indeed, Chechnya has become one of the safest constituent entities of the Russian Federation," Putin said in a videoconference last month to endorse another term for Kadyrov, according to the Kremlin. "It is absolutely perfect."

Human Rights Watch's associate director for the region, Tanya Lokshina, described the endorsement of "Kadyrov and his brutal Chechen regime" as sending "a grim signal about justice" there.

She called Putin's characterization of Chechnya as especially safe is "particularly cynical."

She cited the abduction just last month by Chechen and Daghestani police of the daughter of a Kadyrov associate who was said to be fleeing harassment for her sexual orientation, as well as other abductions and extrajudicial punishment.

RFE/RL and other media have reported in detail about waves of antigay "purges" in Chechnya.

The young men of Jezerina were warned there might be a backlash against associating an otherwise carefree cultural event with a purported serial rights abuser.

WATCH: Ramzan Kadyrov with Mike Tyson

"It started as a joke, but I've suggested to them many times they they'll get negative publicity and a problem further developing the festival," Nebojsa Rogan, from the Bileca Cultural Center, told RFE/RL. "But they've been using it for six years and won't change the name or the way they promote the festival."

He said the Jezerina Youth Group does a lot of good things for the community. They've built a children's playground and an outdoor fitness station there, Rogan said, in addition to other humanitarian activities.

But he said the "Kadyrov" marketing ploy is inappropriate.

"I don't really support that publicity or that style," Rogan said. "Some 'DJ Terrible' performs there and they have posters with Kalashnikovs and Kadyrovs, and I don't know how to explain that."

Written by Andy Heil in Prague based on reporting by Gojko Veselinovic

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