In the five weeks since incumbent Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev was reelected for a third consecutive term, the authorities have cracked down on a prominent NGO, an opposition newspaper, and several bloggers, journalists, and academics in what Amnesty International’s John Dalhuisen has branded “[a] ruthless and relentless attack on any dissenting voices in the media.”
Assessments of the election itself were polarized. The U.S. State Department and the International Election Observation Mission (IEOM) fielded by the OSCE’s Office for Democratization and Human Rights (ODIHR) both rated the ballot as not meeting international standards. The initial IEOM statement noted “serious shortcomings that need to be addressed in order for Azerbaijan to fully meet its OSCE commitments for genuine and democratic elections.”
The European Parliament and OSCE Parliamentary Assembly monitors, by contrast, asserted that the vote was “free, fair, and transparent” and questioned the legitimacy and competence of ODIHR.
Predictably, senior Azerbaijani officials gave credence to the positive assessments, while dismissing the negative ones as at best, inaccurate and biased, and at worst, in the view of Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission, “an insult” to voters.
In a postelection interview with several media outlets, long-time presidential administration head Ramiz Mehtiyev argued at length and in detail that the IEOM and State Department evaluations were profoundly flawed and based on “a policy of double standards.”
He stressed that the opposition National Council, whose candidate Jamil Hasanli polled just 5.77 percent of the vote according to the official results, “failed to produce a single falsified ballot-paper” to substantiate its allegations of large-scale falsification. Mehtiyev further accused unnamed opposition representatives of committing “numerous illegal and provocative acts” on polling day. He did not elaborate.
Mehtiyev affirmed that the election constituted “a huge step forward on the path of democratic construction, of creating a genuinely free society and law-based state in Azerbaijan.” Developments since the election reveal a very different picture, however.
On October 31, the Department for Serious Crimes at the Prosecutor-General’s Office launched an investigation into suspected tax evasion and illegal business activity on the part of the Baku-based Center for Election Monitoring and Democracy Training, one of the country’s most important pro-Western NGOs with over a decade’s experience in election monitoring. All the center’s financial documentation was confiscated, and three senior staffers interrogated.
The center had monitored the entire presidential election campaign. On October 9 it monitored voting at 769 individual polling stations and registered “serious violations” at 91 percent of them, its head, Anar Mamedli, told Caucasus Knot.
At the same time, the authorities have resumed the ongoing crackdown on newspapers affiliated with opposition parties and on independent websites and bloggers.
“Azadliq,” the oldest opposition newspaper (first published in 1989), is on the verge of bankruptcy after a Baku court ruled on October 25 it should pay 30,000 manats ($38,000) in damages in a civil case, and the Azerbaijan State Publishing House demanded payment of accumulated debts amounting to 24,098 manats. The publishing house has suspended printing the paper, which was published seven days a week in a print-run of 10,000 copies.
A second opposition paper, “Yeni Musavat,” temporarily suspended publication as of November 9 to protest restrictions on sales and the withholding of the proceeds from them. Editor Rauf Arifoglu pointed out that such restrictions make a mockery of President Aliyev’s insistence that there is complete freedom of the press in Azerbaijan.
On November 13, Baku’s Court for Serious Crimes sentenced blogger Rashad Ramazanov to nine years in jail on a charge of drug-dealing. Ramazanov denies the charge, which he claims was politically motivated retaliation for criticizing the authorities on his Facebook page.
A second journalist, Nidjat Aliyev, chief editor of the religion-oriented website azadxeber.org, is likewise on trial at the Court for Serious Crimes on a charge of illegal possession of drugs.
Also on November 13, a Baku district court jailed Sardar Alibeyli, editor of the newspaper “Nota bene,” for four years on a charge of hooliganism. Alibeyli had previously campaigned on behalf of former Defense Minister Rahim Qaziyev and of veteran political figure Neymat Panahli, who first shot to prominence in 1988 as one of the speakers at Baku rallies denouncing the campaign for the transfer of the then Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous oblast to Armenian jurisdiction.
Amnesty International’s Dalhuisen said the sentences handed down to Ramazanov and Alibeyli “appear to be based on offences fabricated by the prosecution.”
On November 5, preliminary hearings opened in the trial of seven activists from the youth organization Nida (Shout) and one (Ilkin Rustam-zade) from the organization Free Youth. Initially the seven, who were arrested in March-April, were charged with possession of drugs and explosives, and Rustam-zade with hooliganism. A new charge of plotting mass disorder was brought against all eight in mid-September.
Also on November 5, Yadigyar Sadygov, an adviser to Musavat Party Chairman Isa Qambar, went on trial in Lankoran on a charge of hooliganism. He is accused of insulting, attacking, and injuring a Karabakh war veteran in June.
On November 12, Altay Geyushov, a professor of the history of the Turkic and Caucasian peoples at Baku State University, was dismissed from his post, also for his engagement in social media. His students promptly staged a protest to demand his reinstatement.
Finally, the trial is scheduled to begin next week (November 18) of 18 people accused of initiating the violent protests in January in the town of Ismailly against illegal and repressive actions on the part of the local authorities. The accused include Musavat Party Deputy Chairman Tofik Yaqublu and Ilgar Mamedov, head of the civic movement Real Alternative (ReAl). Both men insist they travelled to Ismailly only to determine precisely what was happening there.
Mamedov, who has been held in pre-trial detention since early February, was refused registration as a candidate in last month’s presidential ballot on the grounds that he allegedly failed to produce the minimum number of valid signatures in support of his candidacy. He is quoted as saying in a recent interview that President Aliyev has forfeited all legitimacy in the eyes of the international community and should therefore resign.