Leaks have real impacts on real people - including me

My name is Geysar, and I am seeking asylum in the United States. My native home is Azerbaijan, an oil-rich country — locked between Russia, Iran and Turkey — with deteriorating human rights and an authoritarian regime. Dissidents are harassed, persecuted and tortured.

By the time the country became independent in 1991, it was a war-torn state drowning in political chaos, economic crisis and military conflict with Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh. My early childhood memories were formed by Russian tanks invading my town, armed coup d’états, poverty and food shortages caused by a large influx of refugees.

At the age of 17, I was accepted into a fellowship program in Washington state funded by the U.S. Department of State. My goal was to prepare myself for a career that could support my country in building peace and democracy.

When the government agents in Azerbaijan approached me in 2009, they suspected that I had been working undercover for Americans. My employment history with various international organizations — NATO, OSCE-ODIHR, Council of the European Union, British Council and IREX — caught their attention.

Initially, the agents could not produce any solid evidence to prove their claims. They eventually got it, however, and, surprisingly, the evidence did not come from their local informants or operatives. It came instead from the other side of the ocean — from the Land of the Free.

Among documents leaked by Bradley Manning, a U.S. Army soldier who pleaded guilty in transmitting classified information to Wikileaks, was a cable dispatched on Oct. 10, 2008, from the U.S. embassy in Azerbaijan to the State Department, CIA, National Security Council and Defense Department.

The cable described me as an “interlocutor” and “contact” of the embassy, thereby incriminating me for providing critical information to American diplomats about the corrupt political situation in Azerbaijan, an act of an adversary in a country where the West-imported democracy was perceived as a threat and its advocates labeled as anti-national forces.

On Aug. 31, 2011, five years after I had returned to Azerbaijan, a Lufthansa Airbus took me back to Seattle. I still picture every moment of my departure; those last minutes with family were the most precious and would haunt me forever.

I had almost no luggage, just a small carry-on backpack and a suitcase. Most of my personal articles and belongings I had to burn in an abandoned construction site outside of the city to destroy any links between my past and future.

My old life was gone. I knew that I would not step again on the land where I was born and raised. I would never be the same person. And I would not see my family for many years. I had left for America with nothing but hope.

But how naive I was to expect that the challenges were over. A month later, I booked an appointment with an asylum intake officer from the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, a nonprofit organization in downtown Seattle.

In the following two years, I have told my story to various individuals — lawyers, federal officers, state legislators — who have become involved in my case, thus beginning my struggle through the U.S. immigration system.

After the cables were leaked to the public, many critics of the U.S. government rushed to glorify whistleblowers — men who made it impossible for me to return home — as advocates of free speech. This became especially true after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked American intelligence information.

Focusing on the bigger picture, it appears the public has failed to raise questions about individuals who have suffered irreversible damage from those revelations. As a result, I found it most challenging to step forward out of their shadows to tell my story.

Yes, freedom of speech matters. It is a cornerstone of democracy. However, there is a fine line when such freedom without careful consideration leads to personal tragedies.

So, who are those whistleblowers: heroes or criminals?

Geysar Gurbanov, a Tacoma resident, is a human rights advocate from Azerbaijan. Currently he is a Rotary International World Peace Fellow at Duke-UNC Chapel Hill Center for International Studies in Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @geysar