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Prominent oppositionist arrested in Azerbaijan

The arrest of the prominent Azerbaijani oppositionist Gubad Ibadoglu is causing reactions worldwide. Many are questioning if Azerbaijan is further descending into the crackdown of a free society.

The arrest of Azerbaijani the prominent oppositionist Gubad Ibadoghlu in the past week has triggered international reactions. On Wednesday, a spokesperson for the European Union External Action, Nabila Massrali, wrote on Twitter that the EU demands his immediate release.

Critics of the arrest agree that it is politically motivated.

Ibadoghlu, who is a visiting researcher in economics at the London School of Economics (LSE), has prior to this year’s visit to Azerbaijan not been in the country since the beginning of 2021. The deteriorating relationship with the government started after he criticized Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev for the country’s economic policies and for not allowing a free market.

Ilham Aliyev indirectly responded to the criticism in a speech by using what is considered offensive language to denounce “economists abroad.”

“That’s why I tell the so-called economists abroad to keep quiet. Nail-biting economists, open your eyes, look, and swallow your tongue all the way down to your stomach. Otherwise, no one can teach us whether our economy is being implemented correctly or not,” said Ilham Aliyev.

In July 2023, the 60-year-old Ibadoghlu temporarily returned to Azerbaijan to visit his aging mother, whose health had worsened.

On Monday, July 24, Ibadoghlu and his wife Irada Bayramova were finally arrested in a car on their way to their home by Azerbaijani police. They were taken to the Ministry of Organized Crime, which, according to the Georgia-based online newspaper OC Media, has previously been accused of torturing those they interrogate.

The arrest happened two weeks after publicly announcing that he had established a scholarship fund for Azerbaijani students, funded by “money stolen from the Azerbaijani people and economy by the Azerbaijani government.”

At the time of his arrest, he accused Ilham Aliyev of ordering his it, shouting to a group of Azerbaijani journalists who had gathered at the scene of the arrest.

Initially, according to the Azerbaijani diaspora media outlet Meydan TV, he was sentenced to 3 months and 26 days in detention on charges of possibly being involved in “preparation, acquisition, or sale of forged securities to an organized group.” Such a conviction could result in 8 to 12 years in prison.

The Azerbaijani police claim to have found $40,000 at his office as evidence. However, Ibadoghlu’s daughter, Zhala Bayramova, states that her uncle, who is Ibadoghlu’s brother, attempted to enter the office but found the locks to be changed. The family accuses the police of planting false evidence and changing the locks.

In addition to his ongoing criticism of Azerbaijan, since 2014, Ibadoghlu has been leading a political social democratic movement called the “Azerbaijani Democracy and Prosperity Movement.”

He has tried to register the movement as a political party since February 2021, but Azerbaijani authorities denied his request in August 2022. In January 2023, Ibadoghlu announced that he had given up his attempts after a new law further restricting the Azerbaijani opposition was introduced.

Moreover, Ibadoghlu was arrested alongside four other people in Baku. The other four individuals are accused by Azerbaijan of being followers of the Turkish Gülen Movement (FETÖ), as reported by Turkish regime-friendly media. According to the Azerbaijani Ministry of Internal Affairs, one of them confessed during the interrogation to having connections with Ibadoghlu.

During the Turkish presidential election in May, Ibadoghlu expressed criticism of Turkey’s incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his relationship with Ilham Alijev.

The relationship between Azerbaijan and Turkey is often described as “two nations – one people,” a phrase that has been frequently used by both countries’ leaders over the past decade.

Since his arrest, Ibadoghlu’s Facebook account, where many of his statements and criticisms were published, has been blocked. Furthermore, his lawyer has been prohibited from giving public interviews, and it took several days for the family to find out which prison he was being held in.

Azerbaijan is blacklisted by Reporters Without Borders and considered by the American Freedom House to be more authoritarian than both Russia and Iran. Photo president.az.

As an oppositional, Gubad Ibadoghlu has consistently criticized the EU for entering energy agreements with Azerbaijan too easily. In a tweet from February this year, when Azerbaijan invited EU representatives to an energy conference in the country, Ibadoghlu stated that these agreements should include transparency clauses.

“I am not against Azerbaijan selling gas to the EU, but the EU, in return, should not give money to the corrupt government for non-transparent expenses without condition”, wrote Ibadoghlu.

Moreover, he has repeatedly accused the EU of fueling the Azerbaijani government rather than supporting democracy movements. He believes that the EU fails to acknowledge the connection between buying Azerbaijani gas and benefiting Russian gas deals.

Additionally, Ibadoghlu has written and spoken in several articles about how the parts of Nagorno-Karabakh that Azerbaijan gained control of after the 2020 war have become subject to corrupt dealings by regime-loyal politicians.

Bahruz Samadov, an Azerbaijani researcher and political activist who is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Charles University in Prague, referred to Ibadoghlu as a social democrat. Samadov is writing his Ph.D on the ideology and hegemony in Azerbaijan before the war in 2020.

“Having brilliant educational background in economics, Gubad was a part of the Musavat Party for many years. He left the party in 2015, after Arif Hajily’s takeover, and established a social-democratic movement”, said Bahruz Samadov.

Why does the government consider that Ibadoghlu is a threat?

“That’s a good question. I don’t think they view him as a threat. His rhetoric has always been gentleman-style, without any signs of populism or personalized criticism. In opposite, his criticism has been more economy inclined. For instance, he was critical of the oil-based economy.”

Bahruz Samadov believes that the arrest of Gubad Ibadoghlu is not fundamentally because he is perceived as a threat, but rather it may be related to either his criticism of Turkey or the establishment of the study fund.

“His target was ideas and policies, not persons. He had quite a big audience of listeners but not enthusiastic followers. One possible reason for his arrest could be the ‘Turkish order’ – that the order came from Turkey –, but many things remain unclear. I think his arrest is related to the establishment of the fund that would help Azerbaijani student abroad. For Aliyev, it could be threatening and even personal”, Bahruz Samadov reasoned.

Bahruz Samadov has long been a critical voice against the regime in Azerbaijan. Archive photo by Rasmus Canbäck.

For Azerbaijani students studying abroad, there are limited opportunities for non-governmental scholarships. Most students seek funding from foreign scholarships such as the Swedish Institute or other EU-funded study programs.

However, Azerbaijan also has a state-sponsored study program that is awarded to high-achieving students. The application process involves an interview with government authorities, but there is limited public information available about what they ask. It is said to be given to students that are loyal with the governmental way of perceiving politics.

Abroad, the Azerbaijani embassies have organized meetings, and there are active student networks for Azerbaijani students who are said to have received the state scholarship. Some of these students also participate in diplomatic gatherings alongside their studies.

Ibadoghlu’s fund was intended to serve as an alternative to the Azerbaijani state scholarships and shed light on corruption at the highest level in Azerbaijan.

The arrest of Ibadoghlu also takes place amidst the ongoing blockade of the Lachin Corridor, the only route between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. This blockade has been in effect since December 12th last year and escalated to a complete blockade since June, despite the International Court of Justice ordering Azerbaijan to lift it.

On July 25th, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies issued a plea stating they are denied access to deliver supplies to Nagorno-Karabakh. The European Parliament, the Council of Europe, and the European Commission have all condemned Azerbaijan for the blockade.

Gubad Ibadoghlu, born in Fuzuli, was forced to leave his home during the war against Armenia in the 1990s. During the 2020 war, he initially supported Ilham Alijev, but he has since expressed criticism of the handling of Nagorno-Karabakh. He has particularly stood behind his daughter’s criticism of the blockade, showing his criticism to the current measures in place.

The lawyer and daughter Zhala Bayramova is pursuing several human rights cases in the European Court of Human Rights. Photo by Rasmus Canbäck.
Zhala shows the video where she is attacked during an election observation. Photo by Rasmus Canbäck.

In Sweden, Gubad Ibadoghlu’s daughter, Zhala Bayramova, is currently residing. She has been attempting to maintain contact with her family back in Azerbaijan. However, she stated that only minimal information is coming out from the country, indicating that communication channels may be limited or controlled. This situation makes it challenging for Zhala to receive detailed updates about her family’s situation and the events unfolding in Azerbaijan.

“It took several days before we got in touch with my father. And his wife, my mother, who was also arrested on the first day, was indeed released. But we have documented the injuries inflicted on her by police brutality. Eight policemen pressed her down,” says Zhala Bayramova to Blankspot.

She also says that the police have returned to their residence in Azerbaijan several times, and there are clear signs that they are being followed.

“The police have searched the residence without finding any additional evidence, it seems. Familiar lawyers and activists who support my mother say that there are signs of surveillance.”

In Azerbaijan, she worked as a human rights lawyer and was active in civil society. In a video from Radio Free Europe, she can be seen being attacked while serving as an election observer during the 2020 parliamentarian election. In Sweden, she has organized several meetings at student gatherings at Lund University to discuss the political situation in Azerbaijan.

What do you think will happen, and what do you want to happen?

“I am scared to consider what I think will happen. Thoughts bring the reality of Azerbaijan, that is torture. Aliyev wants to destroy him physically so he cannot criticize and work on publishing reports regarding corruption in Azerbaijan.  I want him to be released immediately, and I want to see my father. Our family is at a funeral, and knowing he is wrongfully accused and being psychologically and physically abused is unbearable.”

What are the conditions in the prison?

“The information I have seen indicates that he shares a cell with other individuals who have been convicted of serious crimes. Unlike them, he appears to have different rules, such as having to share food and other items provided by family members. The room lacks natural light sources, drinkable water and ventilation. Most importantly, it seems he is not receiving his medications, they have taken away his glasses, and he is being denied access to a doctor.”

How do you feel about traveling to Azerbaijan?

“Azerbaijani is not safe for anybody, not even its citizens. In so many instances, police brutally and psychically assault citizens that don’t even have any political affiliation. Thinking that I, who is a human rights lawyer with dozens of cases at European Court for Human Rights, an outspoken feminist activist, and the daughter of Ibadoghlu, return there, the government has too many reasons to repress me. I already know how it is to be beaten up and sexually assaulted by police to a degree that I couldn’t move for weeks.”

Opposition politician Tofig Yagublu speaks to the media during the protest against the arrest of Gubad Ibadoglu. Screenshot from Azerbaijani media.

The case has not only triggered a reaction from the EU Commission but also from the British, French, German, and American embassies in Azerbaijan. They made a joint statement this week demanding the immediate release of Ibadoghlu.

Many people have replaced their profile pictures on social media with a picture of Gubad Ibadoghlu.

Giorgi Gogia, the director of Human Rights Watch for Europe and Central Asia, stated in an article on their website that the arrest of Ibadoghlu is one among many targeting government critics.

“Ibadoghlu’s detention falls squarely in a longstanding pattern of pursuing dubious charges against government critics in Azerbaijan. Such spurious charges appear to serve only one goal – to silence opposition and critical voices in the country. He should be freed at once”.

The arrest also comes after Azerbaijan detained several opposition activists and journalists in June for covering demonstrations in a small village in western Azerbaijan. Since then, the passage to village has been blocked, preventing outsiders from traveling there [ed. it should not be confused with the situation at the Lachin corridor].

In the early 2010s, Azerbaijan experienced a crackdown of its free society, leading to a significant decline in various democracy indices ever since. Despite this, a united opposition and activists have protested against Ibadoghlu’s arrest.

A large petition has brought together the opposition, rather than dividing it as desired by Aliyev. Several opposition parties and movements joined forces in a collective petition demanding Ibadoghlu’s release. On social media, many supporters have changed their profile pictures to Ibadoghlu’s image, and a hashtag campaign has gone viral.

During the demonstrations, Tafig Yagublu, one of the prominent figures of the Musavat Party, who has been subjected to police violence multiple times, stated that there is no freedom to expect for Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan.

“With the arrest of Ibadoghlu, Ilham Aliyev is once again sending a message to the world: He will never allow Karabakh Armenians to live under legal protection. Treating his own citizens in this manner makes it clear to the international community that Karabakh Armenians cannot expect to live here as ordinary citizens.”

He continues.

“If Ilham Aliyev arrested a world-renowned professor using these shameful and absurd methods, and tarnishes his reputation with dishonest defamation, one can only imagine how he would treat Armenians whom he has been fighting against for over 30 years”, said Tafig Yagublu.

Top image: Gubad Ibadoghlu is on the right. Photo private.

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