Forbidden Stories
Baku Connection

From Azerbaijan to Smartphones: How tainted gold ends up in high-tech products

In June 2023, journalists from Abzas Media were intimidated and arrested for investigating the Gedabek gold mine in western Azerbaijan. A consortium led by Forbidden Stories continued the reporting of Abzas Media journalists currently behind bars; we followed the trail of gold from the Gedabek mine to Tesla cars, Apple smartphones, and HP computers.

By Léa Peruchon

February 1st, 2024

Translated by Sophie Stuber

Additional reporting: Leyla Mustafayeva, Lamiya Adilgizi (for Forbidden Stories), Sofía Alvarez Jurado (Forbidden Stories), Corentin Bainier (France 24), Virginie Pironon (Radio France), François Ruchti (RTS).

In June 2023, dozens of locals began protesting health and environmental pollution around the Gedabek gold mine in western Azerbaijan. At the demonstrations, near Soyudlu, a village roughly 450 km from the capital, Baku, a video was captured depicting a woman in her late 60s in a traditional headscarf. She was being led forward by dozens of riot police with helmets carrying shields and batons. As the woman limps, a policeman tear-gasses her. The video spread across Azerbaijani social media and was viewed and shared millions of times, and citizens across the country began discovering the existence of the Gedabek mine.

Within a few days, 25-year-old Nargiz Absalamova, an investigative journalist with Abzas Media, was sent to cover the demonstrations. While there, Absalamova covered law-enforcement repression against local demonstrators and talked to residents about their concerns; locals were protesting the construction of a new tailings dam, as they believe the first dam, near the village, is responsible for health and environmental damage.

Abzas Media, where Absalamova has worked for two years, is one of the last independent media outlets in the country; it is also one of the few to investigate corruption and human rights violations under President Ilham Aliyev’s regime. Journalists from Abzas Media, co-founded in 2016 by 36-year-old Ulvi Hasanli, often faced threats and intimidation from authorities, but they were not prepared for the swift reaction to their media reports covering repression around the Gedabek mine. Less than 24 hours after her arrival in Soyudlu, the police expelled Absalamova. In Baku, Hasanli was then arrested and detained for several hours after publishing Absalamova’s coverage.

Authorities quickly took control of the area surrounding the mine, and it soon became near-impossible to access. In the following months, the country saw a wave of press repression, and journalists from Abzas Media were some of the authorities’ first targets. In late November, Hasanli was newly arrested, and police apprehended Sevinc Vaqifqizi, the editor-in-chief. Within days, Absalamova was placed in temporary custody. Six members of Abzas Media are currently behind bars, being charged with smuggling foreign currency and facing up to eight years in prison in Azerbaijan.

The managers and employees of Abzas Media have been arrested for their investigations into corruption”, the media’s Facebook banner reads. From left to right, it displays the portraits of Elnara Gasimova, Mahammad Kekalov, Hafiz Babali, Ulvi Hasanli, Nargiz Absalamova and Sevinc Vaqifqizi.

Nargiz Absalamova leaving Khatai District Court on the 1st of December, 2023, having just been sentenced to spend 3 months in a pre-trial detention center. Credit: Ulviyya Ali

From their pre-trial detention cells, Abzas Media journalists called on colleagues worldwide to help continue their investigations on environmental damage by private companies and corruption of Azerbaijan’s elites. After Abzas Media’s journalists were first arrested, in November, Forbidden Stories established the “Baku Connection” project. We coordinated 40 journalists from 15 media outlets to continue Abzas Media’s work. Despite intimidation, Abzas Media had begun a wide-ranging investigation into the environmental impact of gold mining in Azerbaijan, which they had planned to pursue with European Union funding, and we picked up their reporting, focusing on the Gedabek gold mine.

For two months, we investigated human rights abuses and environmental pollution around the mining site and found that gold from the Gedabek mine can be traced to smartphones and electric vehicles, including Tesla. (The extent of health and environmental damage around the mine is difficult to ascertain, as authorities threaten and intimidate locals and journalists attempting to verify such accounts.)

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Behind the Scenes

While Azerbaijan is better known for its “black gold” oil and gas deposits, than traditional gold, the soil is especially rich in the Lesser Caucasus Mountains near the borders of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. In 2008, Gedabek was the first gold mine constructed in the remote, hilly region. There, inhabitants were promised massive economic opportunities, including new jobs, a cybercafé, and Internet training.

Behind the scenes, though, the picture is less attractive: the mine extracts gold directly from open quarries, yielding about 1,200 kg annually. To extract such quantities, the mine utilizes a cyanide-based liquid solution, a highly toxic chemical compound that separates gold from rock. The resulting sludge travels into the six-million-cubic-meter artificial lake that is hundreds of meters from the village of Soyudlu.

Evolution over time of the pond where mine tailings are concentrated, from its construction in 2012 to 2022, via satellite images. Credit: Satellite image ©2024 Maxar Technologies

The basin, the size of 1600 Olympic-sized swimming pools, was constructed in 2012 and is meant to hold sufficient capacity until roughly the end of 2023, according to the mine’s website. The company planned to build another pond in a nearby valley to continue mining gold, but the local population’s outrage during protests last summer seemed to have deterred this plan.

Drops of water

Last June, in one of Absalamova’s reports published on Abzas Media’s website, a villager points to hills behind the existing lake. “They want to build the second lake here,” the resident told Absalamova, adding, “the Vali spring, the purest spring in Söyüdlü, the legacy of our ancestors, will be blocked under the pond.”

Along with the destruction of pastures, villagers shared numerous health concerns they claim are linked to the tailings pond, including cancer, respiratory diseases and digestive problems. “My husband died of cancer. I have documents. The contaminated pond killed us,” one woman told Absalamova, as she pointed to medical records on her phone screen.

An elderly woman from the village confronts the authorities and expresses her fears about the contamination of the reservoir. Credit: Meydan TV

Others said the tailings pond is responsible for pathologies developing in the region. “The lake’s smell was terrible,” Kanan Khalilzade, an eco-activist and member of Ecofront, an organization campaigning for environmental protection in Azerbaijan, said in an interview with the consortium. The smell is caused by cyanide, which turns into a toxic gas when in contact with water.

Professor Nasir Nesanir, a Turkish public health expert who has worked extensively on mine tailings, shared similar concerns. “[The gas] is inhaled through the respiratory system, ingested through the mouth and has adverse effects on people’s health,” he said.

When asked about the health impacts of mining activities, Anglo Asian Mining (AAM), the company that owns the mine, referred to articles published by state and pro-government media. “Voluntary dispensary procedures were conducted for residents of Soyudlu village. The results indicated that disease indicators are generally lower than national averages, reflecting an overall satisfactory health status,” an article from Azertac, the Azerbaijan State News Agency, said. (Local doctors did not respond to the consortium’s requests to independently verify these reports.)

While villagers shared environmental and health concerns since the mine’s opening some 15 years ago, “there were never any major demonstrations, and it wasn’t a national debate,” Javid Gara, another member of Ecofront, said. That is, until last June, when swaths of locals took to the streets of Soyudlu to demonstrate against the construction of the second lake, and against the damage they say the first one caused.

Residents of the village of Soyudlu, on June 21st, 2023, protesting against the construction of a second dam, and the repression of the previous day’s demonstration. Credit: Meydan TV

In response to the demonstrations, around 300 police officers arrived, Elmaddin Shamilzade, an independent journalist present during the protests, told Forbidden Stories. “It was too much. They were dressed in black and covered their faces,” Shamilzade said. Since then, authorities have silenced any voices attempting to cover the events.

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Torture and threat of rape

Last June, within 24 hours of arriving in Soyudlu to cover the protests, police expelled Absalamova and two other journalists. They soon found another entry to the village via a small path, but police immediately arrested and beat them. When Absalamova tried to defend a Voice of America colleague, “the police pushed me, grabbed my arm and beat me against the wall,” Absalamova said in a complaint she later filed with the Attorney General for obstruction of her lawful journalistic activity. (In response to the complaint, local authorities claimed Absalamova was not wearing any “distinguishing sign confirming your activity.”)

In a letter dated July 13, Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, responded to the events by questioning the legality of the authorities’ actions. In response, Azerbaijani authorities said they barred journalists’ entry to maintain public order and protect their safety. “No one has been arrested for any critical comments, and the entry of outsiders, including journalists, to the village, was stopped precisely in view of their personal safety for a short time,” the permanent representative of Azerbaijan of the Council of Europe said last July.

Journalists Nigar Mubariz and Nargiz Absalamova (right) in a car after being arrested by the police on June 22nd, 2023 and forcibly evicted from the village with one of their confederates Elsever Muradzade. Credit: Voice of America

Censorship soon spread to Baku. Last June, Shamilzade, the independent journalist who covered the demonstrations in Soyudlu, was arrested by plainclothes police officers and transported to a police station in central Baku. He was told to delete a photo he had posted online that identified riot police in Soyudlu. “You know we have special rooms, and we can take you there,” an officer said, as Shamilzade recounted to the consortium.

“One of the policemen hit me in the face. I hid my face, but they continued… there was a guy walking down the corridor who saw me and said, ‘Oh, you’re beating someone up.’ He took [the baton] and joined in,” Shamilzade said.

Shamilzade eventually lost consciousness, and when he awoke, agreed to delete the post, but the police were not satisfied. Officers wanted full access to his phone. When Shahilzade refused, officers threatened to rape him—a common violation in Azerbaijani prisons. Faced with these threats, Shamilzade gave police his password. The police searched his phone and released him on the condition he not make public his experience at the police station. A few weeks later, Shamilzade fled the country for fear of retribution.

Turmoil at the ministries

The Soyudlu demonstrations caused serious concern with authorities and even worried the President himself. At a meeting devoted to the country’s socio-economic status last July, he said the company that owns the mine, Anglo Asian Mining [AAM], “don’t come here to do charity work, they come here to make money. But this does not mean that our nature will be destroyed.”

That month, the government established a commission, chaired by Mukhtar Babayev, Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources, to “investigate and rectify” the wrongdoings allegedly committed by the company in the area. Azerbaijan’s prime minister, Ali Asadov, criticized Babayev for failing to monitor the AAM’s operations until then, publicly calling it a “serious miscalculation.” Within days of the commission’s creation, the government suspended Gedabek’s activities until the completion of an environmental and health impact study.

“When a government shuts down a mine due to pollution problems or human rights violations, the situation is extremely concerning. A state in itself has no interest in suspending a mine, as it will generally lose revenue,” Marc Ummel, an expert at Swissaid, an NGO specializing in mining issues, told the consortium. Production in 2023 fell by 44,77% due to the mine’s closure, and the company’s share prices plummeted.

Aliyev’s government, unsurprisingly, has a stake in the mine’s image. Through its local subsidiary, Azerbaijan International Mining Company, the British company AAM signed a Production Sharing Agreement with the Azerbaijani government in 1997, which gives a share of the mine’s production profits to the Ministry of the Environment.

The Iranian tycoon Mohammed Reza Vaziri is AAM’s main shareholder and the man responsible for the Production Sharing Agreement with Azerbaijan. Vaziri has been in the Aliyev regime’s back pocket for decades. He posed in photos with the president at the inauguration of the Gedabek mine processing plant in 2013, and the foreign press reported that he could meet with the prime minister and oil minister “anytime.”

Ilham Aliyev and Mohammed Reza Vaziri at the inauguration of the treatment plant in 2013. Credit: Official website of the Presidency

John Sununu, an 84-year-old former Republican governor of New Hampshire and chief of staff to George Bush Sr., holds nearly 9.4% of AAM’s shares, the equivalent of $8 million at current market prices. He is also a known climate sceptic.

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Officially, problem solved

For several days last summer, the government sent dozens of ministry representatives, engineers and scientists to Gedabek to conduct a series of tests, including dam construction, stream conditions and air quality. The tests were supervised by Micon International, an international geology and mining consulting firm.

In September 2023, the company received the results of the government-commissioned environmental study, which found, “the existing tailings dam is in generally good working condition,” and “no cyanide was found in any soil sample above the limits of analytical detection,” according to Micon International. Experts blamed “a lack of proactive communication between the site management team and the local community.”

(Despite repeated requests for comment, AAM, Micon International, the laboratories that analyzed samples, and the Ministry of the Environment did not respond to Forbidden Stories and its partners. The consortium has not accessed the field sample results or any connected analysis.)

Developing a second pond close to the village has, at least for now, been halted. To resume mining activities, the company planned to raise the existing dam. According to an AAM shareholder report, the current wall can be raised by, “an average of 7.5 meters to give enough capacity for production for the next two to three years.” An engineering firm, Knight Piésold, was responsible for the proposal to raise the wall and detected “no issues with the structural stability of the wall of the tailings dam,” according to the same report.

Cyanide mud lake filmed by journalist Nargiz Absalamova on the 21st of June, 2023. Credit: Abzas Media

When contacted by the Forbidden Stories consortium, Knight Piésold said the information on the elevation of the existing dam was “incorrect.” But in a separate email, when asked for further details, it said it was bound by a confidentiality agreement and could not disclose the nature of its work on the dam.

AAM reiterated its compliance with “all local regulations” and added that it had recently “joined mining sector leaders by committing to the GISTM [Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management].”

Four months after the protests, AAM announced it would resume operations at the mine after reaching an agreement with the government.

Azerbaijani gold for Tesla, HP, Samsung and Apple

Alongside the Azerbaijan government and AAM, one of the mine’s biggest beneficiaries is Swiss refinery and gold giant MKS PAMP. As one of the world’s 10 largest gold refineries, MKS PAMP sells gold–some of which it purchases from AAM and the Gedabek mine–globally to large multinational companies, including Tesla, HP, Microsoft, and Apple. Electric cars, computers, electronic components, and smartphones require this precious metal.

When asked about the human rights abuses in Soyudlu and the potential health impacts of the mine, MKS PAMP said it “takes environmental responsibility extremely seriously,” but added that it “would continue to engage with Anglo Asian Mining Ltd.” Microsoft, one of MKS PAMP’s clients, responded to the consortium’s questions by referring to their commitment to human rights and support of independent journalism but did not answer questions about AAM. Tesla, Apple, and HP did not respond to our requests for comments.

Gedabek mine quarry from which the tonnes of rock needed to produce gold are extracted. Credit: Anglo Asian Mining website

Several former clients of Gedabek mine were more cautious and ended business relations with AAM before the events last June. Argor-Heraeus, another major industry player, previously refined 10% of the mine’s gold in 2020 and 2021, but is no longer involved in Gedabek. “We suspended our relationship because Anglo Asian Mining did not react on a regular update request on our ‘Know Your Customer’ (KYC) process,” Tore Prang, the group’s communications and marketing manager and executive vice-president, told the consortium, which would require AAM to answer questions yearly to help the refinery prevent, mitigate, and manage risks that compromise responsible sourcing. Prang also mentioned “a lack of information,” on the internal operations of AAM that led to the partnership’s termination in May 2023.

Silence is golden

Locals in Soyudlu still have questions about the pond’s safety, and others fear the dam might burst, which “will be a disaster. If it happens, it will not be about one village. It is not about one town. It is about half of the country,” Gara, of Ecofront, said.

In 2000, in Baia Mare, Romania, a similar disaster occurred when the Baia Borsa mine burst, and 100,000 cubic meters of cyanide-poisoned water spilt into local rivers. Considered the worst ecological disaster in Eastern Europe since Chernobyl, the event still haunts many Romanians, and the contaminated water destroyed 80% of the aquatic life in the area.

Checkpoint set up by the police at the entrance of the village of Soyudlu, last June. Credit: Abzas Media

Last September, Reporters Without Borders called for an end to the “three-month-old ban on reporting by independent journalists” in Soyudlu. In the village and the surrounding region, access to information is still limited, and media coverage has become nonexistent. “If you tell the truth, they cut your tongue off,” a villager told Forbidden Stories and its partners under the condition of anonymity.

Azerbaijan is set to host the COP29 summit, in November 2024, which makes reporting critical of the mine particularly sensitive. Babayev, the Minister of Ecology and head of the commission overseeing analyses at Soyudlu will chair the conference. (The minister did not respond to the consortium’s questions.)

When Sevinc Vaqifqizi, the editor-in-chief of Abzas Media, who is currently in pre-trial detention, heard that Azerbaijan would be hosting COP29, she suggested starting a campaign called “dirty money is as dangerous as dirty air.” “It could be a breath of fresh air for democracy,” Vagifgizi told the consortium through her lawyer, Elchin Sadigov.

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