The April 19 arrest of prominent Azerbaijani newspaper correspondent and political analyst Rauf Mirkadirov could put an end to efforts by Azerbaijani and Armenian civil society activists and journalists to maintain some form of contact, and bury their so-called “citizen diplomacy.”
The Azerbaijani government has never welcomed such exchanges, but previously never seriously harassed those few Azerbaijanis who took part in them, either. But the espionage charge against Mirkadirov, who had traveled occasionally to Yerevan for conferences, could strongly discourage their continuing. The charge carries a potential life prison sentence.
Rauf Mirkadirov, 53, had worked as the Ankara correspondent of the Baku-based Russian-language Zerkalo (Mirror) daily for the last three years. His articles and op-eds were often critical of both the Azerbaijani authorities and the Turkish government. He was detained on April 19 and deported to Azerbaijan after his press accreditation was suddenly canceled. In Baku, he was arrested upon arrival.
The fact that Mirkadirov was deported just a few days after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Baku made many in Azerbaijan, including Mirkadirov’s lawyer, Fuad Agayev, believe that the journalist’s arrest is the result of an agreement between Ankara and Baku.
Mirkadirov’s family – his wife and daughter – has also left Turkey and is now in another country.
Azerbaijani prosecutors state that Mirkadirov is suspected of having transferred to Armenian intelligence between 2008 and 2009 classified information about Azerbaijan’s political and military sectors, “including photos and schemes to be used against Azerbaijan.” They claim that these supposed meetings occurred in Armenia, Georgia and Turkey.
Mirkadirov’s attorney, Agayev, stresses that his client did not have access to classified information and that, therefore, these charges are groundless.
“Maybe investigators have some photos or videos where Rauf sits with Armenians at one table. But it is not serious to arrest a prominent journalist based on it,” the lawyer said.
Agayev added that prosecutors named as the Armenian “intelligence agent” Laura Bagdasarian, an Armenian journalist who is known for her longtime cooperation with the well-known Azerbaijani human rights activist Leyla Yunus. One other individual cited in the charges – his name has not been released -- Mirkadirov does not know, he said.
The mention of Bagdasarian means that “other local journalists and civil society activists who cooperated within the Bagdasarian-Yunus joint project could also be prosecuted,” Agayev predicted.
Leyla Yunus, director of the Peace and Democracy Institute, said that Mirkadirov’s arrest on espionage charges indeed means a “full, unofficial ban on contacts with Armenia” for Azerbaijani civil society activists. “It makes participation in ‘citizen diplomacy’ dangerous,” Yunus commented to EurasiaNet.org.
The projects in which Mirkadirov took part were supported by Germany’s Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the British and Polish embassies, the European Union and other international organizations and foundations with the sole aim of encouraging peace, Yunus said.
“I personally do not accept any charges against Rauf Mirkadirov and if he was arrested for contacts [with Armenians] within our projects, then let the government arrest me,” she asserted.
In comments to the Azerbaijani news agency Turan, Laura Badgasarian also rejected the notion that she had acted as any “Mata Hari” for Yerevan, or that Mirkadirov’s participation in events with Armenians had anything to do with espionage.
If the Ministry of National Security, as alleged, had suspected Mirkadirov of espionage back in 2008-2009, why did it keep quiet until now? she queried.
As of yet, no answer has emerged.
Motivations for the arrest remain unclear. While Mirkadirov was critical of both the Azerbaijani and Turkish governments, other Azerbaijani journalists have been more outspoken.
Those who have worked with Rauf Mirkadirov and know him well question the charges. “Rauf is a patriot of Azerbaijan and his articles have never contained anything against the country’s interests,” underlined Mehman Aliyev, director of Turan.
Concluded local journalist Kamal Ali, a former colleague: “It is rubbish.”