Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney’s April 26 remarks to the BBC have hit a raw nerve in Azerbaijan, the ex-Soviet petrocracy where her client, investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, is kept prisoner.
After Clooney described the political reasons for Ismayilova’s arrests, the Azerbaijani government apparently did what it always does when pressed on its human rights record -- claimed a global Armenian conspiracy.
No matter if Clooney’s case at the European Court for Human Rights involves an Azerbaijani journalist’s struggle against the Azerbaijan state. Azerbaijan’s state propaganda will find an Armenian connection even if there is none.
“Turns out that Armenia indeed has a weapon that we could not even dream of… the ‘deadly weapon’ that Armenia is using against Azerbaijan is the quite well-known, failure-of-a-lawyer Amal Clooney, née Alamuddin,” Day.az sniped.
The smear campaign, waged loyally by Azerbaijan's predominantly pro-government mainstream media, comes shortly after Azerbaijan and longtime archenemy Armenia fought a brief, so-called four-day war earlier this month. The seemingly endless feud between the two neighbors began after a bloody war in the late 1980s and early 1990s over separatist Nagorno-Karabakh, which resulted in the eviction of the enclave’s entire ethnic Azeri population.
Investigators of a deadly bus blast in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, claim that the April 25 attack could all come down to a family quarrel, rather than terrorism. For now, however, details about the explosion -- the first such event in recent memory in this city of roughly 1 million -- are few.
An SIM card found in the exploded bus led investigators to an apartment, where, local media reported, they found TNT, electric wires and detonators. The card is believed to belong to one of two men who died when the explosion ripped through the bus late on Monday evening, sending its roof flying for a block. The deceased men could not be identified visually; a DNA analysis is underway.
Russian press, citing the National Security Service, have claimed that the unidentified, suspected culprit, an ex-con, intended the blast to kill his parents, with whom, allegedly, he had argued. How investigators reached this information is not clear; nor are the whereabouts of the individual’s parents.
An unidentified “object,” presumably carried by this same passenger, is believed to have caused the explosion.
If the explosion had, as Regnum put it, “an everyday basis,” its consequences were anything but usual for those affected.
Eyewitnesses reportedly rushed to take passengers to the hospital. The driver survived unharmed, while seven passengers were treated for wounds. "I fainted. When I came to, a guy was lying next to me, all torn apart," 14-year-old Anahit Mikaelian told the A1plus news service.
It has been a Caucasian weekend for the Clooney couple. The Hollywood-star husband went to Armenia for an anti-genocide forum, while the human-rights-lawyer-star wife went to Washington to rally support for her Azerbaijani client, jailed investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova.
George Clooney, who deems it “ridiculous” to deny that Ottoman Turkey committed genocide against ethnic Armenians, joined Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan in Yerevan on April 24 for a commemorative ceremony of the massacre, and then presented a peace award to Burundi humanitarian Marguerite Barankitse in commemoration of the survivors of the 1915 slaughter.
Clooney said that his wife, Amal, could not join him in Yerevan because she was making a case in Washington for her client, Khadija Ismayilova.* “She is visiting the White House today and then will meet with Senator [John] McCain and others,” the actor elaborated in an interview with Armenian TV stations, local outlets reported. “She’s there trying to find ways to gets this incredible, brilliant reporter free.”
He quipped that because of his wife taking up cases like Ismayilova’s, they are “starting to run out of places we can go.”
Azerbaijan is certainly shaping up as one such place.
The Azerbaijani government has taken aim at Meydan TV, one of the few independent Azeri-language news outlets, after the station alleged that Baku under-reported the number of Azerbaijani deaths in this month’s fighting in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, the station says.
The Azerbaijani prosecutor’s office has not released any public information about its investigation, but a lawyer for Meydan, Elchin Sadigov, stated that 15 Azerbaijanis have been named in a government investigation into supposed tax evasion and illegal business activity; the usual charges against journalists and those who refuse to toe the government’s line.
“We consider this as a declaration of war against independent journalism in Azerbaijan,” Meydan’s founder, activist Emin Milli, commented to EurasiaNet.org.
None of the individuals has yet been charged, though the station reports that the government banned “a number of journalists” from leaving Azerbaijan as well as searched their residences and took work equipment without a warrant.
The government has not responded to these reports. Prosecutors could not be reached for comment.
Earlier, Meydan TV had come under attack from mainstream, pro-government news outlets and officials alike for its critical coverage of the so-called Four-Day War, the April 2-5 flare-up in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over separatist Nagorno Karabakh. Amidst the fighting, all sides – Azerbaijan, Armenia and the Karabakhi separatists – made grand claims of losses inflicted on their respective enemies.
“War is over, beware of peace” goes a phrase from the Caucasian Chalk Circle, a play by Bertolt Brecht. It rings true today when peace in the Caucasus is brought by Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who is initiating a new phase of the roughly 24-year-long talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
After brokering a shaky April 5 ceasefire between the two, Moscow now has hit on “intensive negotiations,” a familiar prescription, as the way forward. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov traveled to Yerevan on April 21 to talk about the Karabakh negotiations.
As yet, however, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group, the tripartite body headed by Russia, the US and France, which has overseen the Karabakh talks since 1992, is not in the picture.
“It was the initiative of Russian President Vladimir Putin,” said Ali Hasanov, a senior aide to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. “He addressed the presidents of both countries [Armenia and Azerbaijan] and preparations are underway now for the negotiations process.”
“We have activated all necessary diplomatic mechanisms to place the sides at the negotiations table,” Russia’s Kommersant newspaper quoted an unnamed Kremlin official as saying.
The official said that Moscow attaches top importance to finding peace in Karabakh, but, then, whether in South Ossetia, Ukraine or Syria, it always does, supposedly.
Some farmers in the South Caucasus country of Georgia want to channel Winnie the Pooh: eager to put their country’s free-trade deal with the European Union to good use, they believe honey is “a very good thing to do.”
Russia’s plans to keep selling guns to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, no matter if the Caucasus’ two irascible neighbors use them against each other, is feeding growing Armenian frustration with their only strategic ally.
With a potentially game-changing cabinet reshuffle underway in Ukraine, ex-Georgian President-Turned-Odessa-Governor Mikheil Saakashvili is having a déjà- vu moment. Today’s Ukraine, with its government in limbo and much in want for change, reminds him of pre-Rose Revolution Georgia, when, as a young and cheeky justice minister, he took on the late President Eduard Shevardnadze.
Back in 2001, Saakashvili, then justice minister, upbraided Shevardnadze for not doing anything to fix Georgia’s helter-skelter, corruption-infused governance system, and quit. Now, the former Georgian leader is back in controversial stride, calling out Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on political cronyism and stasis in Ukraine, and failure to meet popular expectations for change. Saakashvili has threatened to cross over into the opposition against Poroshenko, a former university classmate, and take his team along.
At an April 11 press-conference, Saakashvili, flanked by his staff and supporters, accused Poroshenko and Ukraine’s central authorities of undermining his efforts to stomp out graft, red tape and the reign of oligarchs in the Odessa region, a promised petri-dish for nationwide reform. “Reforms delayed are reforms denied,” he said. “Not a single promise given after Maidan [the 2014 revolution also known as Euromaidan] . . . has been fulfilled.”
“If you cannot help, at least don’t hinder,” Saakashvili said, addressing Poroshenko, who, he claimed, is obstructing regional reforms by opting to maintain a balance among rivalling forces.
Gold mines for Azerbaijan’s presidential offspring, an ex-Georgian leader’s offshore company, a key Armenian official’s questionable income, the grounds for a clamoring public outcry in the South Caucasus over the Panama Papers were all there. But, so far, it hasn’t come.
Details about the Azerbaijani presidential family’s alleged control over Azerbaijan’s goldmines and its supposed business alliance with Tax Minister Fazil Mammadov hit on April 4, a day before a ceasefire which more or less ended three days of fighting with Armenian and separatist Karabakhi forces.
A 2012 report by RFE/RL, an OCCRP partner, had found that Aliyev’s daughters had stake in the goldmines; a revelation that OCCRP believes cost RFE/RL investigative journalist Khadija Ismyailova her freedom.*
Russia on April 7 swiftly took charge as a conciliator in the Armenia-Azerbaijan fight, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the ground in Baku, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on his way to Yerevan and President Vladimir Putin sending his “warmest greetings.”
“At every level, from president to prime minister, to foreign ministry, to defense ministry, to joint chiefs of staff, we did everything to help the sides arrive at a ceasefire agreement,” Lavrov said on April 7, as he met Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in the Azerbaijani capital. The trip was announced in March, before the latest violence began.
While calling for a lasting Armenia-Azerbaijan peace, Lavrov used the opportunity to emphasize Moscow's special role in the affairs of its former Soviet republics and to draw lines for the West's involvment. Russia, “as a country with close ties to both” Armenia and Azerbaijan will stay involved to make sure that the truce holds in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Lavrov said.
Although saying that Moscow is supportive of peace initiatives of the conflict's two other international mediators, the United States and France, Lavrov claimed than Russia is more interested in a peaceful resolution of the 28-year-old Caucasus conflict than anybody in the West.