The December 16 arrest of well-known Azerbaijani democratization watcher Anar Mammadli has become the latest move in what critics call the Azerbaijani government’s ongoing war against civil activism and political dissent. But where Western democracy activists see the government trampling of civil society, some claim that many Western officials see only gas and oil.
Mammadli, who chairs the Baku-based Center for Election Monitoring and Democracy, documented cases of various violations in this October's presidential election, which brought a third encore for President Ilham Aliyev’s ten-year rule. His criticism of the last election included the post-election crackdown on dissenting media, and was picked up by international news outlets and cited by international watchdogs.
The charges against him, though, are not the usual favorites of drug possession or abuse -- crimes that tend to affect government critics in particular, according to Azerbaijani police -- but charges of tax evasion and an "illegal business activity," RFE/RL reported.
Aliyev's Yeni Azerbaijan Party has slammed Mammadli for supposedly slanderous attacks on the presidential administration and, ironically, for his “authoritarian methods of governance” of his own organization.
Parliament member Jeyhun Osmanli alleged that Mammadli, his office and its sponsors – the American-run National Democratic Institute and the European Commission -- are part of a conspiracy against the Azerbaijani government.
International human rights watchdogs long have called for the international community to interfere with the intensified attempts to choke off critical voices in Azerbaijan. And this time was no different.
Human Rights Watch has called on British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who visited Baku on December 17 to initial a deal for the construction of the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, to raise the issue of these arrests with the Azerbaijani authorities. The EU’s energy commissioner, Günther Oettinger, also was in town for the signing.
A press release from the United Kingdom's Foreign and Commonwealth Office focused only on the gas talks, though added that Foreign Secretary Hague would "discuss a range of issues" with President Aliyev and Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov. The EU has not yet commented on Mammadli's arrest.
Human-rights activists claim, though, that, if anyone, London would seem to be in a position to pressure Baku to let up on such perceived abuses of freedom of speech. With BP operating oil and gas extraction and export facilities in Azerbaijan, the UK provides roughly 50-percent of the country's foreign investment, argued Amnesty International; a situation that placesprivately owned BP, expected to be the Trans-Adriatic pipeline's largest investor, in a position of some influence.
“[A]fter all he who pays towards the pipeline, should call the tune,” said Allan Hogarth, Amnesty UK’s head for policy and government affairs.