There is virtually no space for opposition in Azerbaijan’s parliament, but the government often appears happy to provide room for its rivals in prison. Some prominent faces from the country's drubbed-into-a-corner opposition were handed prison sentences on March 17 on controversial charges of inciting riots in a provincial town last year.
A court in the northeastern city of Sheki sentenced Tofi Yagublu, deputy chairperson of the Musavat Party, and Ilgar Mammadov, leader of the Republican Alternative (ReAl) rights group*, to five and seven years in jail, respectively. The court found the two guilty of sparking riots in Ismayilli, where thousands last January took to the streets, burning a hotel and laying siege to the local governor’s office. The government responded with sending riot police and keeping the city in a lockdown for several days.
Yagublu and Mammadov counter that they trekked out to Ismayilli to support the protesters and arrived when the unrest, sparked by a traffic accident involving the son of a cabinet minister, was already in full rage. Nevertheless, the Sheki court turned a deaf ear to the protests from defense lawyers, as well as local and international rights groups.
President Ilham Aliyev earlier admitted that local officials were to blame for the popular fury in Ismayilli and fired the unpopular local governor. Yet, as is the order of the day, critics claim, whenever the energy-rich country faces troubles, its rivals bear the brunt of the blame. In this case, the trouble could well be the example of Kyiv's EuroMaidan movement, which has alarmed other strong-arm governments in the neighborhood, too. Amnesty International said that the charges against Mammadov and Yagublu are fabricated, and that the two are “being punished simply as critics of the government.”
The US embassy has charged that both arrests were "politically motivated," but, as Baku sees its strategic value for the West grow in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis, don't expect it to take that criticism to heart.
-------- *Ilgar Mammadov formerly served on the board of the Open Society Azerbaijan Foundation, part of the network of Open Society Foundations. EurasiaNet.org is operated under the auspices of the Open Society Foundation-New York City's Central Eurasia Project, a separate part of that network.