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The last year in Azerbaijan: the highs and lows

Article by Arzu Geybulla

January 2, 2020

The last year in Azerbaijan: the highs and lows

2019 was a year not without its highs and lows in the land of fire – Azerbaijan. From a snap decision to dismiss the national parliament, to the release of prominent political prisoners, to the replacing of some high ranking government officials, as well as more arrests and detentions. This year, Azerbaijan made the news for its lack of capacity while hosting the Europa League final and the farce with the loose manhole cover that damaged George Russell’s Williams during the Grand Prix practice in Baku.[1] Not to mention the vehicle carrying the damaged Williams striking a bridge on the way to the pit making it all look even more comical. The corrupt nature of its ruling government and its affiliates haunted officials in Baku in 2019 as well. One key example of this is when the news of the country’s former international bank head Jahangir Hajiyev’s wife was spotted at London’s high end department store Harrods, having spent 16 million pounds.[2] Not all at once of course, but over the last ten years. Meanwhile, her husband, was sentenced to 15 years in jail in October on charges of fraud and money laundering to name a few.

 

To break it all down, here is a closer look at some of these and other developments that shook Azerbaijan’s civil society, government and the country’s image abroad.

 

#FreeMehman

2019 began with the #FreeMehman campaign that targeted authorities in Azerbaijan to immediately drop new charges that citizen journalist and activist Mehman Huseynov was facing, just when his previous two year prison term was going to finish. Despite the absence of evidence in court, and an international outcry on the illegality of the sentence, Huseynov was jailed in 2017 on charges of slander and sentenced to two years in prison.

 

In December 2018, new charges were brought against Huseynov accusing him of allegedly “resisting a representative of the authorities with the use of violence dangerous to his health and life”.[3] If found guilty, Huseynov was facing an additional seven year prison term. While Huseynov declared he was going on a hunger strike, many prominent civil society activists joined him in solidarity. An unsanctioned rally was organised in support of Huseynov on January 19th, demanding his release. Several human rights watchdog groups, as well as the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, called on the authorities to drop the new charges while the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for Huseynov’s release. As a result of mounting pressure, the charges were dropped and Huseynov was released in March 2019 after having served his full two year sentence.

 

So much for emancipation

It was not the way Azerbaijani feminist activists would have wanted to celebrate the country’s first ever women’s march.[4] Instead of celebrating the achievements of Azerbaijani women, police chose to celebrate the day with slaps and kicks. But not from the police per se. A collection of older women, many who were later identified as fruit and flower sellers, charged into the crowd of protestors to shout at and harass them. There were slaps and shoves for both the marchers and the journalists covering the event. Police were there, to idly watch and observe.

 

Meanwhile on an international diplomacy stage, negotiations over disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh were back on the agenda. Except that President Ilham Aliyev refused to accept the proposal to include Nagorno-Karabakh officials at the negotiation table ahead of the summit in Vienna.[5][6]

 

He did, however, agree to release over 50 political prisoners during the annual presidential pardons over the Novruz celebrations in March. The good news was quickly followed with some bad news – the editor of the ‘criminal.az’ website, Anar Mammadov was handed a suspended sentence of five and half years with a two year probation period.[7] Mammadov was found guilty of making public calls against the state, abuse of professional duties and forgery, all of which Mammadov and his lawyer refuted in court to no avail.

 

Then a massive fire at one of the shopping malls in Baku burned the place to the ground. It was one of eight large fires in 2019 that damaged businesses in the capital.[8] These fires raised one of the most pressing issues in Azerbaijan – the presence of a shadow economy and its consequences, not only on economic transparency but the ability to engage in any kind of healthy business in the country. Many business owners who suffered great costs during the fires complained of the absence of property insurance. This, however, is directly linked to the commercial agreements made between the property owners and business owners. In Azerbaijan, often, these agreements are not made. Partly due to the fact that often shops or businesses are owned by government employees. There is also a 14 per cent tax imposed on business owners which according to independent economists is too high given economic conditions in Azerbaijan.[9]

 

In April, Bayram Mammadov, one of the graffiti prisoners released during the March pardons, was rearrested and sentenced to 30 days in administrative detention on charges of resisting the police.[10] During his hearing, Mammadov said the charges were baseless and that he was innocent and that he had been subject to police violence after his arrest with officers on duty severely beating him. Two of the men who beat Mammadov sat in the courtroom during the hearing and although Mammadov pointed them out, the two men were let go while the judge ruled to keep the decision of the administrative sentence.

 

Nothing surprising there – in a country that lacks independent judiciary, the chances of accessing a fair trial are virtually non-existent. But the chances of getting a fair trial if you are George Russell who was racing in Baku during the Grand Prix increase substantially. While Mammadov was beaten, rearrested on false charges and sent away to detention, Baku was getting ready to host yet another round of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. But sloppy preparations led to a rather embarrassing accident for the organisers. As set out above, ahead of the weekend’s race George Russell’s Williams struck a manhole cover during the practice sessions. The incident made the news, and even briefly turned into a meme. Immediately after the accident, Arif Rahimov, the promoter of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix and the executive director of Baku City Circuit said the damage caused will be covered as per an insurance agreement.[11] While the costs were not mentioned, it is worth mentioning that Rahimov, who happens to be the son of Azerbaijani Youth and Sports Minister Azad Rahimov, was in charge of picking the suitable bidder in the tender to become the official organiser of the race.[12] But it just happened that Rahimov junior’s company received the right to host the competition without any tender which is a violation of Azerbaijani laws. For the likes of Mammadov, one lives below the law, but for the likes of Rahimov, one lives above the law and very little can get in their way, including an accident.

 

Another major sporting event hiccup took place just a month later when Baku opened its doors – for the first time in its history – to the Europa League final, hosting Arsenal and Chelsea football clubs. If only this one was as easy to pull off as the European Games, or the Islamic Solidarity Games or even the Grand Prix. There was much criticism of Baku as a host city, even before the game. From expensive airfares, to a lack of hospitality infrastructure, to the capacity issues with Baku’s International terminal and last but not least, the safety concerns for Arsenal player, Armenian national Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

 

At least these were the issues that made the international headlines. There was little mention of the issues Azerbaijani citizens had to face during the games. In addition to main road closures, transportation routes were amended to accommodate football fans traveling from Georgia to Baku.[13]

 

Perhaps Azerbaijan is just one of the many countries in the world, where celebrating one’s heritage and commemorating Independence Day are less important than a football match.

 

A wave of protests 

In October, two important rallies put a spotlight on Azerbaijan.[14] On October 19th, the National Council of Democratic Forces (NCDF), an umbrella group of Azerbaijani opposition groups, organised an unsanctioned rally that was violently dispersed by local police. Demonstrators called for the release of all remaining political prisoners, guarantees for free and fair elections, and an end to economic injustice.[15] Among the many who were rounded up and arrested was Ali Karimli, leader of an opposition party – Popular Front. Karimli was severely beaten and then let go. Police refuted claims Karimli was beaten during detention in a statement, concluding Karimli injured himself while taking a fall. A statement released by the prosecutor office claimed Karimli sustained the injuries during a scuffle with police officers as he resisted arrest and managed to beat two police officers in the meantime.

 

But arrests began already days ahead of the scheduled rally. Former political prisoner and journalist Seymur Hezi was one of many arrested ahead of the rally. In the run-up to the demonstration, Azerbaijani investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova said police also blocked three subway stations in an apparent attempt to thwart protesters from reaching the main rally site.[16] Meanwhile, activists reported disruptions in internet access across central Baku.

 

The following day, a group of women activists took to the streets calling to end all forms of violence against women.[17] The march was sparked by yet another victim of domestic violence, Leyle Mammadova who was stabbed by her husband in public.

 

Phantom reforms 

After 16 years in power, surrounded by more or less the same old guard as his father, President Ilham Aliyev decided to shuffle things around. Shuffle is the key word here, because all the changes that have taken place among government officials over the recent months indicate no real reform but rather an illusion of it.

 

In October, Aliyev replaced the second most powerful man in the country, the chief of staff Ramiz Mehdiyev. Then the Prime Minister Novruz Mammadov was replaced by a slightly younger technocrat Ali Asadov. Meanwhile, a man of all traits, Mikayil Jabbarov took on his third ministerial posting, this time as the Minister of Economy after having served as Minister of Education and later as Minister in charge of taxes. Jokes about Jabbarov collecting different ministerial titles were abundant among Azerbaijani activists. Aliyev also reshuffled his Cabinet of Ministers and the Presidential Apparatus.

 

In December, the Azerbaijani National Parliament was dissolved following the ruling party initiative and early elections are scheduled for February 9th 2020.

 

Some have praised these changes, but in absence of real legal, judicial, and social reforms, none of these new appointments give hope.[18] Among them, is Rauf Mirkadirov, a veteran Azerbaijani journalist who said, “Reforms are a new ideology, a new management system, and not new people. With a good system, even a bad manager cannot ruin everything […]. Without fundamental reforms affecting all spheres, we cannot create a good system of government.”[19]

 

The recent municipal election held on December 23rd, attest to just how far the ruling elite of Baku – even with newly appointed officials and the talk about reforms – are willing to go to protect their position. Reports of ballot stuffing, multiple voting by a single individual at different polling stations, and intimidation of journalists were abundant.[20] However the election of a few young faces, such as former journalist Vafa Nagi and civil society activist Rufat Aliyev gives some hope. Theirs was a real fight, something that the government in power has not done in decades and most likely forgotten what it means.

 


Photo by President.az, under Creative Commons.

[1] Paul Doyle, Why did Uefa hand Azerbaijan hosting rights for the Europa League final?, The Guardian, May 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/football/2019/may/16/uefa-handed-azerbaijan-europa-league-final-baku-chelsea-arsenal

[2] Dominic Casciani, Zamira Hajiyeva: How the wife of a jailed banker spent £16m in Harrods, BBC, May 2019, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-48433012

[3] Arzu Geybullayeva, Azerbaijanis pressure government to #FreeMehman after blogger endures 12 days on hunger strike, Global Voices, January 2019, https://globalvoices.org/2019/01/08/azerbaijanis-pressure-government-to-freemehman-after-blogger-endures-12-days-on-hunger-strike/

[4] Arzu Geybulla, Azerbaijan: Celebrating Women with Slaps and Kicks, Global Voices, March 2019, https://iwpr.net/global-voices/azerbaijan-celebrating-women-slaps-and-kicks

[5] RFE/RL, Aliyev Rejects Armenian Proposal To Include Karabakh Officials in Peace Talks, March 2019, https://www.rferl.org/a/aliyev-rejects-armenian-proposal-to-include-karabakh-officials-in-peace-talks/29821933.html

[6] RFE/RL, Armenia-Azerbaijan Summit Described As ‘Positive,’ ‘Constructive;, March 2019, https://www.rferl.org/a/armenia-azerbaijan-summit-vienna-positive-nagorno-karabakh/29850997.html

[7] Council of Europe, Anar Mammadov Gets Suspended Prison Sentence, Platform to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalists, April 2019, https://www.coe.int/en/web/media-freedom/detail-alert?p_p_id=sojdashboard_WAR_coesojportlet&p_p_lifecycle=0&p_p_col_id=column-3&p_p_col_count=7&_sojdashboard_WAR_coesojportlet_alertPK=56733828

[8] Meydan Tv, Fire in the capital, December 2019, https://www.meydan.tv/az/article/paytaxtdaki-yanginlar/?ref=list-news

[9] Ibid 8.

[10] RFLE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service, Pro-Democracy Activist Rearrested In Azerbaijan After Amnesty Release, April 2019, https://www.rferl.org/a/pro-democracy-activist-rearrested-in-azerbaijan-after-amnesty-release/29857422.html

[11] Pete Baumgartner and Hafiz Babali, Family Connections Fuel Controversy Over Azerbaijan Grand Prix, June 2017, https://www.rferl.org/a/family-connections-fuel-controversy-over-azerbaijan-grand-prix/28575756.html

[12] Ibid 11.

[13] Rashim Shaliyev, Beyond the controversies, Baku’s Europa League final brought little for locals, OC Media, June 2019, https://oc-media.org/beyond-the-controversies-baku-s-europa-league-final-brought-little-for-locals/

[14] Nailia Bagirova, Polina Devitt, Margarita Antidze and Gareth Jones, Azeri police detain scores of protesters, including opposition party leader, Reuters, October 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-azerbaijan-opposition-protests/azeri-police-detain-scores-of-protesters-including-opposition-party-leader-idUSKBN1WY0DM

[15] Human Rights Watch, Azerbaijan: Peaceful Rallies Dispersed Violently, October 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/10/22/azerbaijan-peaceful-rallies-dispersed-violently

[16] RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service, Baku Police Detain Dozens As Opposition Rallies, October 2019, https://www.rferl.org/a/police-arrest-opposition-activists-ahead-of-baku-rally/30225138.html

[17] RFE/RL, Photo Galleries: Azerbaijani Capital Rocked By Weekend of Protests, October 2019, https://www.rferl.org/a/weekend-of-protests-shakes-azerbaijan/30227692.html

[18] Thomas De Waal, is Change Afoot in Azerbaijan?, Carnegie Europe: Judy Dempsey’s Strategic Europe, November 2019, https://carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/80271

[19] Turan: Informasiya Agentliyi, Experts doubt the effectiveness of so-called “Azerbaijani reforms”, October 2019, http://www.turan.az/ext/news/2019/10/free/Want%20to%20Say/en/84843.htm

[20] RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service, Azerbaijanis Vote in Municipal Elections, December 2019, https://www.rferl.org/a/azerbaijanis-vote-in-municipal-elections/30340791.html

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