National Council Refuses to Recognize Legitimacy of Azerbaijan's Constitutional Referendum
BAKU. September 28, 2016: The Azerbaijani opposition National Council of Democratic Forces issued a statement refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the recent constitutional referendum increasing the powers of the incumbent Azeri president Ilham Ailyev. Below is the statement of the National Council:
A referendum vote on proposed constitutional amendments took place on September 26. In spite of the National Election Commission’s declaration that the turnout was close to 70%, objective observations demonstrate clearly that the Azerbaijani citizens effectively boycotted this referendum. The information obtained by the National Council from various polling centers show that the turnout was extremely low. Less than 10 % of voters took part at referendum. Even the always prevalent carousel method, whereby the special groups of people funded by budgetary organizations, move from one polling center to another voting several times at different locations, could not increase the turnout. Across all polling centers, ballot boxes were stuffed with bundles of vote bulletins.
The real voters were replaced by either the polling center commission members, or by a specially organized group of people engaged in election fraud. In several episodes it was clear that the empty ballot boxes were replaced with already filled up boxes. All of these episodes of vote rigging are proven by video footages obtained by various media representatives, and active and concerned citizens. The aforementioned fraudulent practices were even recorded by the CCTV cameras placed in the polling centers by the National Election Commission. These footages were then publicized widely. More detailed information on these election fraud incidents can be obtained through the websites of the “Azadliq’’ newspaper, ‘’Radio Free Liberty’’, and ’’Meydan TV’’, as well via a number of Facebook pages. The fact that the absolute majority of voters refused to vote, and that the voting process was totally rigged, leads to an inevitable conclusion that the referendum did not in actuality take place.
The National Council hereby declares that it refuses to consider this referendum as legitimate and therefore does not recognize its results.
BAKU. September 28, 2016: Opposition Musavat party has released a preliminary report about the recent constitutional referendum in Azerbaijan increasing the incumbent president's powers. The report details the law violations which undermine the legitimacy of the referendum. Below is the full text of the report:
Musavat Party Central Election Headquarters considers that, the 26 September 2016 referendum was held in the atmosphere of absence of explanation of essence, necessity of suggested amendments and changes by the initiators of the draft without presenting it to the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe for its opinion, lack of free political competition, equal campaigning and observation opportunities, absence of legislation meeting international standards.
The Venice Commission of the Council of Europe stated its preliminary opinion with regards to proposal of the Azerbaijani authorities to conduct a referendum and in connection with the issues raised at the referendum.
The preliminary opinion underlines the demonstrations of the Azerbaijani opposition against anti-democratic amendments and its position on reactionary amendments and changes proposed to the referendum.
STRASBOURG. September 21, 2016 (Venice.coe.int): Constitutional modifications proposed for vote in a referendum in Azerbaijan next Sunday 26 September 2016 are assessed negatively and “at odds with European constitutional heritage” by the Venice Commission in its Preliminary Opinion made public today (Click here for the full report).
The draft modifications concern 29 provisions of the Constitution and concern:
• a number of human rights provisions;
• additional powers of the President, his term of office and introduction of the figure of (appointed) Vice-President.
The opinion criticises the procedure of adoption of the reform, in particular the lack of clarity of the rules set in the Constitution for passing such modifications, the facts that the Parliament was not formally involved in the process, and that the time for public discussions about the reform was insufficient.
As to the modifications of human rights provisions, some of them are generally positive. In particular, the constitutionalisation of the principle of proportionality is welcome, although the proportionality should be checked against the state’s legitimate aims and not expected results. That being said, the proposed limitation clauses raise concerns as regards the freedoms of assembly, association and speech – all limitations in this sphere should be interpreted in the light of the principles derived from the ECtHR case-law.
Shahin Aliyev, the head of the legal department in Azerbaijan's presidential administration, said the negative opinions by the Council of Europe's Venice Commission were "hasty" and "unfounded."
The Venice Commission said on September 21 that many draft proposals by Baku's government would severely upset the balance of power and give "unprecedented" control to the president.
For example, the extension of the presidential mandate from five to seven years "cannot be justified" given the already very strong position of the president, the commission said.
Aliyev said in a briefing in Baku on September 21 that "we view that hasty conclusion [by the Venice Commission], which has many flaws, as politically driven. They speak to us in a language of ultimatums."
BAKU. September 19, 2016 (RFE/RL): Yesterday, September 18, hundreds of supporters of an Azerbaijani opposition party rallied in the capital, demonstrating against a referendum later this month that seeks to strengthen President Ilham Aliyev’s authority.
Baku city police reported no major problems with the September 18 rally by the Musavat party, which ended after about two hours.
"Azerbaijan now finds itself in a crisis situation due to the incorrect policies of the Aliyev regime. We urgently need reforms in the country," Arif Gadzhili, a top party leader, told the crowd holding Azerbaijani flags and photographs of people believed to be political prisoners.
"However, the Aliyev regime, which has concentrated power in one hand, is conducting policies that are aimed at putting yet more power in that hand," he added.
The rally had been authorized by government officials.
The September 26 referendum has generated sharp criticism from Azerbaijan's beleaguered opposition, as well as civil society activists, journalists, and others.
BAKU. September 16, 2016: Some call it the Paris of the Caspian; others purr that it is the caviar-producing region’s Dubai. But on the weekend of June 18th and 19th the comparisons were with Monaco. Baku’s first-ever Formula 1 race took place on a 6km (4-mile) street circuit in the heart of Azerbaijan’s capital. On the longest straight, cars screamed up to 354kph (220mph), whooshing past the imposing, Stalin-era Government House and a marble-paved waterfront promenade. The circuit also incorporated fiendishly tight chicanes in a section that winds picturesquely around the walls of Baku’s UNESCO-protected old town.
The juxtaposition of medieval and modern architecture – the latter itself a mix of communist kitsch and modernist, skyscraping hotels and office blocks, built on hydrocarbon wealth – was stunning. “Wow! It’s all either centuries old or ten minutes old,” enthused a team official. Draped over the side of one of Baku’s half-dozen five-star hotels was a giant banner announcing that “The speed is higher in the land of fire” (as Azerbaijan is known because, some say, of its flaming surface-oil deposits). At night the façades of Baku’s tallest skyscrapers (above) were turned into giant LED-display screens showing figures waving chequered flags. Adding to the sense of unreality were the hundreds of purple-sprayed London taxis on the streets.
The race, truth be told, wasn’t terribly exciting. Having bagged pole position, Nico Rosberg of the Mercedes team led comfortably throughout. It lacked the sense of spectacle of Grand Prix extravaganzas held in Europe and Asia, which can attract crowds of more than 200,000. The children dressed as FI drivers, who paraded past the paddock during the opening ceremony, were waving to largely empty stands. There were plenty of unoccupied seats on the main grandstand. The FI “village” of shops, bars and cafés was often eerily quiet. There were 25,000 paying customers over the three days of practice, qualifying and racing. Azerbaijan may be oil-rich, but the wealth is unevenly spread: few of its 9m people could afford tickets, even when offered a 40% discount. Foreigners came only in dribs and drabs. The event’s boosters say it was Baku’s first shot at hosting; give it time. “Your first Grand Prix is always a prototype,” says Arif Rahimov, the chief race organiser (and son of Azerbaijan’s sports minister).
WASHINGTON. September 16, 2016 (CSCE.gov): In a recent letter to Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) expressed deep concern about the country’s September 26 constitutional referendum, which proposes changes that would undermine Azerbaijan’s international obligations to protect democracy. The bipartisan letter urging President Aliyev to reconsider holding the referendum and to live up to his government’s commitment to human rights was also signed by Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Joe Pitts (PA-16) and Rep. Adam Schiff (CA-28).
“By lengthening presidential terms and expanding presidential authorities, the proposed constitutional changes are susceptible to abuse that would entrench political authority, making it less responsive to the will of the Azerbaijani people,” the Members of Congress wrote. “We are especially troubled by amendments that would restrict fundamental rights that are vital to open public debate and government accountability.”
Proposed changes to Azerbaijan’s constitution include extending the presidential term from five to seven years; removing the age limits for holding elected office; providing immunity for vice presidents; allowing the president to dissolve the national assembly and call early elections; and reorganizing the presidential line of succession.
BAKU. September 11, 2016: The opposition National Council of Democraatic Forces of Azerbaijan held a protest rally today. The opposition protesters chanted slogans against the scheduled referendum to increase the powers of the incumbent president of Azerbaijan. The referendum to change the constitution of Azerbaijan is scheduled for September 26, 2016 (Azeri Report).
BAKU. September 11, 2016 (RFE/RL): Azerbaijani authorities have released an opposition activist from jail, just weeks after his detention prompted international criticism in Europe, North America, and elsewhere.
Colleagues of Natig Jafarli, of the Republican Alternative Movement, said he was released from a Baku jail on September 9. The head of the Republican movement, Ilqar Mammadov, remains in prison.
Jafarli was arrested on August 12, charged with “illegal entrepreneurship” and other charges that prosecutors said stemmed from a grant the Republican movement received from the U.S.-based nongovernmental organization, the National Democratic Institute.
BAKU. September 8, 2016 (Eurasianet.org): Just a few months ago, authorities in Azerbaijan spent tens of millions of dollars on hosting a Grand Prix auto race, which critics derided as a vanity project that satisfied the leadership’s craving for international attention, but did not produce any tangible benefits for the general population. Now, there are several indicators that government finances are tight and Azerbaijan’s economy could spin out.
The clearest sign of Azerbaijan’s fiscal vulnerability is the late-August move by commercial banks to suspend the sale of foreign currency, specifically US dollars. In the weeks leading up to the suspension, demand for dollars spiked, thus causing the Azerbaijani currency, the manat, to slide.
The manat’s summer woes fuelled fears that the government would carry out the third devaluation of the national currency since the winter of 2015. In September 2014, the manat traded at 0.78 to the US dollar. The rate on September 7, 2016, was 1.66 per dollar. The Central Bank in late August, prior to the suspension of foreign currency sales, characterized devaluation fears as “groundless.”
BAKU. September 7, 2016: On September 5, the Azerbaijani opposition party Musavat issued a progress report on the campaign for referendum on the constitutional amendments proposed by the Azerbaijani government, reports the Turan News Agency . The document reflects the law violations from the date of the announcement of the referendum on July 26 until August 31 this year. The constitutional referendum is pushed by the Azerbaijani government to extend the presidency term from five to seven years and also increase the executive powers of the Azerbaijani government.
According to the report issued by Musavat, the Azerbaijani government has not yet provided any detailed explanation to the Azerbaijani people about the essence of the referendum. The draft amendment was not submitted to the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe for evaluation. The authorities did not organize any public discussions on TV. In fact, no public debate has been held to discuss the upcoming referendum on the constitutional changes.
The only campaign group “Republic” was established by the opposition, but the Central Election Commission of Azerbaijan refused to register it violating yet another election/referendum law. The Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal from the decision of the Central Election Commission. Thus, the attempt to have a public eye on the referendum process has effectively been prevented by the Azerbaijani government.
BAKU. September 6, 2016: The Turan News Agency reports that the Nasimi District Court of Baku rejected the appeal for bail filed on behalf of Natig Jafarli, one of the leaders of the opposition REAL movement imprisoned on trumped up charges. Natig Jafarli is accused of receiving grants for his nonprofit organization from international organizations in violation of the Azerbaijani laws.
Jafarli was arrested on August 12 this year. The next day the local court put him in pretrial custody for four months.
Investigation Department for Serious Crimes of the General Prosecutor's Office brought charges against him under the Articles 192.1 (illegal entrepreneurship) and 308.2 (abuse of power, resulting in serious consequences) of the Criminal Code.
PARIS. August 24, 2016 (RSF.org): Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the arrest of Faiq Amirov, the financial director of the leading opposition daily Azadlig, and calls for the withdrawal of the ludicrous charges brought against him. Amirov, who is also an adviser to the head of the opposition Popular Front Party, was arrested on 20 August and was charged two days later with “inciting religious hatred” and “violating the rights of citizens under the pretext of conducting religious rites. ”The authorities, who have ordered him held provisionally for three months, absurdly claim that he is an “imam” in the movement led by Fethullah Gülen, the US-based Turkish cleric now regarded by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the leading threat to his government. The claim is based on the alleged discovery of books about the Gülen Movement’s philosophy in the trunk of Amirov’s car at the time of his arrest. The allegation has been greeted with widespread incredulity and well-known independent journalist Khadija Ismayilovacommented: “They used to plant arms and drugs to frame critics, but now they have upgraded to planting books.
PRAGUE. August 22, 2016: Having failed to persuade key defendants in the so-called “Nardaran trial” to implicate Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (PFPA) Chairman Ali Karimli in an alleged plot by Islamic extremists to incite mass disturbances with a view to seizing power, the Azerbaijani authorities have now changed tack. Over the past several days, four PFPA activists have been apprehended on a variety of charges; one of them is accused of being a follower of exiled Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen, who Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claims was behind the botched coup attempt last month.
According to Azerbaijani presidential administration deputy head Novruz Mamedov, several Azerbaijani opposition parties have links to Gulen’s Hizmet movement. He warned that all its supporters in Azerbaijan will be identified.
The PFPA , together with the Musavat Party, is one of Azerbaijan’s longest-established opposition parties -- it is the successor organization of the Azerbaijani Popular Front established in 1989 -- and one of very few ever to have won parliamentary representation. Karimli, 50, who has served as party chairman since 2000, was elected to parliament in 1995 and 2000.
Karimli has for years been denied a passport for travel abroad, and the Justice Ministry declined late last year to recognize as legal his reelection as PFPA chairman.
OSLO. August 17, 2016 (HumanRightsHouse.org): Several Azerbaijani activists including; Natig Jafarli, Elshan Gasimov, Togrul Ismayiıov, Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, and Elgiz Qahreman have been arrested in the run up to a national referendum on expanding presidential powers. Human Rights House Foundation (HRHF) calls for the authorities in Azerbaijan to cease intimidating opposition and dissent during the referendum period. Additionally, we encourage the Council of Europe to hold Azerbaijan to its standards by guaranteeing the right to participate in public life during the referendum period, including the rights to freedom of expression and assembly.
The proposed amendments would prolong the presidential term from five to seven years and introduce the posts of first vice president and vice president. Other proposed changes are related to restrictions in the right to freedom of assembly, which would be contingent on "public order and morality"; and the right to property, which could be restricted in the interests of "social justice and effective land use.” In addition, Azerbaijani citizenship could be withdrawn "in accordance with the law." The referendum will be held on 26 September 2016.
“Everyone should be allowed to freely and safely express their opinion during a campaign – the right to participate in public life includes disagreeing with the government’s proposal. A popular referendum, in particular, should be an opportunity for true public debate on the future of the State’s institutions. Instead, we fear that we are now seeing the beginning of a new wave in the crackdown on civil society and opposition in direct relation to the referendum.” commented Ane Bonde, HRHF’s Regional Manager, Eastern Europe and Caucasus.
BAKU. August 15, 2016: Attorney General's Office o Azerbaijan made a statement to the local press explaining the charges against the recently arrested opposition activist Natig Jafarli. Natig Jafarli, executive secretary of the opposition REAL Movement, has been arrested on August 12 this year. The local court in Baku quickly sentenced him to four months of pretrial detention under the charge of illegal entrepreneurship. Today, the Attorney General's Office disclosed that the basis for Natig Jafarli's arrest was his receiving a grant from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the US based nonprofit organization funded by the US Congress, in the amount of $94,565, reported the Turan News Agency. The Attorney General's Office stated that Natig Jafarli received the NED grant without proper registration of his local nonprofit organization and that "the grant has been obtained for the purpose of receiving personal benefits and with the help of Ilgar Mamedov, the leader of REAL." The National Endowment for Democracy has not yet issued a statement clarifying its position regarding Natig Jafarli's arrest and the charges related to the NED grant to Natig Jafarli's organization (Azeri Report).
BAKU. August 10, 2016: The presidents of Russia, Iran, and Azerbaijan met in Baku this week, for the first time in this trilateral format, part of a week of heavy diplomatic activity that highlighted the shifting international relations around the South Caucasus.
The Baku meeting took place on Monday, and was taken on the initiative of Azerbaijan. The top agenda item was a railroad project that could connect Russia and Eastern Europe to the Persian Gulf.
That project would bring not only economic benefits to the three countries, but could be a geostrategic boon for Azerbaijan, as well, said Zaur Shiriyev, a Baku-based political analyst. He noted that this project would compete with another Russia-initiated North-South railroad project, that would go from Russia through Abkhazia, Georgia, and Armenia.
BAKU. August 8, 2016 (RFE/RL): Russian President Vladimir Putin says he's eager to discuss new energy and transportation projects in the Caspian Sea region with his counterparts from Azerbaijan and Iran.
Putin held separate talks on August 8 with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Iranian President Hassan Rohani before all three leaders get together in Baku later.
Putin told Aliyev that the trilateral talks would allow the three countries to implement new projects in the Caspian Sea, including in the energy and transport sectors.
At a separate meeting with Rohani, Putin expressed satisfaction with developments of bilateral economic ties between Moscow and Tehran.
An EU-backed energy project that foresees the construction of a pipeline from Azerbaijan to Europe via Turkey is likely to shower Baku’s repressive leadership with new income.
The recent coup attempt in Turkey has raised concerns that political instability in the increasingly authoritarian country could jeopardize strategic energy projects including the Southern Gas Corridor, a European Union (EU) plan to import natural gas from the Caspian Sea region. However, repressive conditions in Azerbaijan are also cause for alarm. Given that past growth in Azerbaijan’s energy sector has fueled government corruption and related crackdowns on civil liberties, a boost in revenue and international status from the new pipeline route could worsen the country’s already tarnished human rights record—and thereby imperil its long-term reliability as a supplier.
Even as it nurtures an opaque business environment and starves the non-oil sector of growth and healthy investment, Azerbaijan’s energy wealth has enabled the corrupt leadership to entrench itself in power by tightening control over the media and other institutions.
Civil society groups have tracked the country’s authoritarian drift for many years, pointing to evidence of election rigging, arbitrary detentions, and violence against the opposition. But prominent investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova recently argued that matters grew steadily worse because the Azerbaijani government did not “encounter much criticism from democratic countries.” For example, President George W. Bush spoke of Azerbaijan as “a modern Muslim country that is able to provide for its citizens, that understands that democracy is the wave of the future.” In 2010, Hillary Clinton highlighted restrictions on civil society, but insisted, “We believe that there has been a tremendous amount of progress in Azerbaijan.”
Repression has escalated sharply over the past three years.
BAKU. July 21, 2016 (RFE/RL): A private Azerbaijani television station has been taken off the air and accused of damaging Baku's "strategic" links with Turkey after announcing it would broadcast an interview with U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen.
Turkey's government blames Gulen for orchestrating last weekend's failed military coup, in which hundreds died and more than 1,500 more were injured when troops tried to oust President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Azerbaijan's National Television and Radio Council (NTRC) on July 18 announced on its website that it was temporarily suspending the operations of private-owned ANS television while also filing legal action to revoke the station's license.
"To avert provocations aimed at disrupting strategic relations between Azerbaijan and Turkey, and to prevent overt terrorist propaganda … it has been decided to suspend the operations of ANS television channel for one month," said a July 18 statement posted on the council's website.
BAKU. July 21, 2016 (RFE/RL): Azerbaijan's government has taken over a private university widely linked with controversial Turkish cleric Fetullah Gulen, and put it under the control of a school owned by the state oil company. Students at the Qafqaz University in Baku were left wondering what was happening to their institution. -0-
BAKU. July 13, 2016: Some Azerbaijani activists claim that international rights watchdogs, such as Amnesty International, have created a two-tier system for political prisoners that effectively hinders less prominent government critics’ chances for release from prison. “We see they are interested in the cases of star political prisoners,” commented attorney Yalchin Imanov, who represents jailed Azerbaijani Islamic Party Chairperson Movsum Samadov and opposition parliamentarian Asif Yusifli, among other imprisoned government critics. “As a result,” he charged, “except for very few cases, the majority of illegal arrests, cases of unfairly punished people are overlooked; especially, opposition parties’ members and religious activists are being forgotten by international organizations.” The London-based Amnesty International, which compiles what many Azerbaijanis see as the most important list of alleged victims of judicial abuses, lists only 14 prisoners of conscience for Azerbaijan: bloggers and social-media activists Abdul Abilov and Elvin Karimov; blogger Rashad Ramazanov; opposition journalist Seymur Haziyev; opposition politicians Fuad Gahramanli, Faraj Karimov and Ilgar Mammadov; opposition youth activists Elvin Abdullayev and Murad Adlilov; political activist Ilkin Rustamzade; Rovshan Zahidov and Rufat Zahidov, relatives of an opposition journalist; and leftist activists Giyas Ibrahimov and Bayram Mammadov, jailed for spraying graffiti on a statue of the late President Heydar Aliyev.
WASHINGTON. July 6, 2016: It is widely understood that corruption is a pervasive problem in many societies and undermines public confidence in the political system and government institutions. The scourge of corruption is generally viewed as a symptom of a larger problem of the failure of judicial, media, and other institutions of accountability in new or developing democracies. In kleptocracies, which is the term used to designate “government by thieves,” corruption is the lifeblood of the system and therefore the heart of the problem.
Karen Dawisha, the author of Putin’s Kleptocracy and one of the foremost experts on this issue, makes the observation that “in kleptocracies risk is nationalized and rewards are privatized.” Participation in the spoils of kleptocracy is organized and controlled by top political elites, who raid state resources with immunity and impunity. Whistleblowers, investigative journalists, and others who seek to expose corrupt practices become targets of law enforcement and are treated as enemies of the state.
By denying space for moderate political voices that offer possible alternatives to existing policies and leaders, kleptocracies open the way for extremists. Altay Goyushov, an Azerbaijani scholar and a former Reagan-Fascell Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, has observed that by repressing peaceful activists and reformers in Azerbaijan, the kleptocratic regime in Baku “argues that it is taking steps to ensure stability. They have this exactly wrong. By eliminating moderate voices in society, Azerbaijan’s leaders set the stage for an anti-Western environment that will serve as a breeding ground for extremists, who pose a grave security threat to both the region and the West.”
WASHINGTON. June 24, 2016 (Turan): Amid oil price slump Azerbaijan's state oil company SOCAR has recently decided to limit its operations in the US, TURAN's Washington correspondent A. Raufoglu was informed by several sources knowledgeable on the matter.
SOCAR, once a lavish spender on just about anything from bizarre lobbying projects to sponsoring international contests, has already closed its several offices abroad such as the ones in Germany, Belgium and Switzerland, as the company announced in May.
The American subsidiary of SOCAR has been updating its website until recently, albeit its staffers haven't been seen around during the past few months. A surprise sign appeared in front of SOCAR's DuPont Circle office building early this week and reads "Office space for lease" referring to a real estate company called "Summit."
The company confirmed its involvement in leasing out SOCAR's building apartments without providing any further details when reached over the phone.
SOCAR America purchased a 23,000-square-foot historic building in DuPont Circle in 2012. The mansion located on 18th street NW, previously served as home for Freedom House, a human rights watchdog that lists Azerbaijan among the word’s top “not free” countries.
By Charles Recknagel and Arzu Geybullayeva, RFE/RL
BAKU. June 17, 2016: No matter who wins the Formula One Grand Prix in Baku this weekend, Vahid Veliyev stands to make some money: He is renting out his balcony, which overlooks the course of the first-ever F1 race to be held in Azerbaijan.
The asking price: $200 a day, with a discount if a spectator leases the small outdoor space for all three days of the June 17-19 event.
"That will include a table on the balcony, as well as tea with sweets," says Veliyev, who put an ad in the paper after the government urged Baku residents with balconies to rent them out for the race.
The chance to earn extra income from a balcony overlooking the circuit is one of the few ways any of the city's residents stand to benefit from Baku's latest effort to become a global sports and entertainment center. The event, which culminates with the Grand Prix race on June 19, is taking place as the country's economy has slowed to a crawl due to the low price of oil, the main source of revenue.
BAKU. June 14, 2016 (FreedomHouse.org):The government of Azerbaijan released investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova from prison on May 25—583 days after she was jailed on trumped-up charges. She remains confined to Baku, the capital, but has resumed her reporting on corruption involving the family of President Ilham Aliyev. She spoke with Freedom House by telephone.
Freedom House: Why do you think the authorities targeted you for arrest?
Ismayilova: The government wanted to arrest me because it wanted to silence me, to stop my investigations. They wanted to prevent me from advocating for human rights and telling the truth. They put a lot of effort into this venture and brought several cases under different parts of the criminal code.
They finally had to release me because, in all the cases and whatever the charges, it was clear from the beginning that the accusations were false and entirely political. In the last case, the charges were chosen specifically because of the crimes I was actually reporting and writing about, crimes in which my reporting showed involvement by the government. They chose these particular parts of the criminal code—alleging embezzlement and tax evasion—because these were their crimes.
Other activists were arrested at about the same time as you, in December 2014. What was making the government nervous? Why did the government act at that particular time?
It was a long process that started long before the actual crackdown; it came step by step. They spent a lot of money on lobbying, and they put a lot of effort into silencing media, and then decided on a major crackdown to eliminate civil society on an institutional level.
WASHINGTON. June 10, 2016: Pre-requisites for joining Donald Trump’s campaign include but are not limited to: representing military juntas in D.C., using fake “volunteers” to push for the privatization of social security, and accepting money from ExxonMobil to deny the impacts of climate change.
At least that’s what worked for Trump’s newest hire: Jim Murphy, the former president of the lobbying shop DCI Group, which was responsible for all of the aforementioned shenanigans. Murphycameon board as the campaign’s new national political director on Monday, according to a report fromThe New York Times. He replaced an open space left by former Republican National Committee operative Rick Wiley who was abruptly cut from the operation at the end of May. But that didn’t stop DCI from associating with repressive regimes. In 2012, the firm was hiredfor $20,000 a month by Azerbaijan to improve its public relations in the United States. The State Departmentreferredto the country’s human rights record as “poor, especially with respect to freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, the administration of justice, and the respect of property rights.” The goal of the DCI-Azeri partnership was to highlight the country’s energy resources as a benefit for the United States.
WASHINGTON. June 7, 2016: Six months before he launched his presidential campaign, Donald Trump announced a new real estate project in Baku, Azerbaijan. The partner was Anar Mammadov, the son of a government minister suspected by U.S. diplomats of laundering money for Iran's military and described as "notoriously corrupt."
Eighteen months later, and only weeks after daughter Ivanka Trump released a publicity video of the nearly finished project, references to the Baku project have disappeared from Trump's website. Trump's general counsel, Alan Garten, told The Associated Press that it was on hold for economic reasons.
Trump often talks of hiring the best people and surrounding himself with people he can trust. In practice, however, he and his executives have at times appeared to overlook details about the background of people he has chosen as business partners, such as whether they had dubious associations, had been convicted of crimes, faced extradition or inflated their resumes.
The Trump camp's vetting skills are important as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee turns to selecting a running mate. They would become even more crucial if he won the White House. As president, Trump would have to name more than 3,600 political appointees to senior government jobs, including critical positions overseeing the national security and the economy.
In the Azerbaijani case, Garten said the Trump Organization had performed meticulous due diligence on the company's partners, and had hired a third-party firm that specializes in background intelligence and searching global sanctions, warrant and watch lists at home and abroad.
But Trump had not researched the allegations against the Baku partner's father because the father was not a party to the deal, Garten said.
WASHINGTON, DC. June 3, 2016: Early in May, a Washington-based lobby firm called Greenberg Traurig LLP signed a contact with a Baku-based "human rights group" offering its lobbying service to provide "U.S. government relations counsel."
The Association for Civil Society Development in Azerbaijan, a pro-government group known as its bogus advocacy on behalf of Azeri government's "caviar diplomacy" in Europe, will pay $25,000 per month to Greenberg Traurig with the three-month contract in Washington, according to Justice Department's records.
Payment will be made by Renaissance Associates – another Baku-based pro-government group, – on ACSDA's behalf, TURAN's Washington correspondent was informed.
The pact was signed between ACSDA's chairman Elkhan Siraj Suleymanov, a member of Azerbaijan’s parliament, and Greenberg Traurig’s Elana Broitman, former Capitol Hill advisor. Broitman previously served in the Clinton administration as Senior Rule of Law Advisor to the USAID.
In her letter to Suleymanov on April 20, Broitman highlighted the company's billing policy adding that the rates of their lawyers and paralegals "are subject to change." "Any new rates would be implemented immediately after they are adopted and would apply to services rendered after the effective date thereof."
BAKU. June 1, 2016 (Radio Azadliq): London -- one of world's most expensive cities. Owning property here can be a profitable investment -- especially when it's located in one of the city's most exclusive neighborhoods.
New investigations by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service reveal that Leyla and Arzu Aliyeva -- the daughters of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev -- own at least three properties in some of the priciest parts of London.
The investigations, aided by the Panama Papers link, show how the Aliyev family used offshore companies in Panama and the Virgin Islands to hide their ownership of the London real estate, which is estimated to have cost a total of at least 60 million dollars.
BAKU. May 27, 2016 (OCCRP): On her first day of freedom, between CNN’s Christiane Amanpour and the Voice of America, Khadija Ismayilova made time to talk to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. She reflected on the experience of her 537 days in jail, the current situation in Azerbaijan and the Khadija Project, OCCRP’s response to her incarceration.
OCCRP: Can you tell us about the conditions in jail? Did you ever encounter any kind of abuse, either against you or others?
Khadija: I told myself I’m not spending my lifetime, I’m spending a prison term. So I’m not going to get older – the time that is spent there is not my life. So that was the attitude, and attitude is essential.
There were some minor problems, but my decision was that I will not complain about the conditions, because I don’t want people to be scared of the prison. That’s what the government wants, is for the journalists, activists, politicians to be afraid of imprisonment and stop criticizing the government…. There is nothing unbearable – as you see, I am full of energy. You can survive – and even more.
OCCRP: Can you explain the specific terms of your release? I understand you can’t leave the country, but can you travel at all? And are you allowed to continue with your work?
By Miranda Patrucic, Khadija Ismayilova and RFE/RL, OCCRP
BAKU. May 27, 2016: Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev ordered the state-owned gold company AzerGold to buy out four mining companies, including at least two owned by his own family. The deal bails the First Family out of a disastrous failed mining venture that had left gold unsold, workers unpaid and their personal companies in deep financial debt.
The family controls some of the country’s richest gold, copper and silver deposits. The people of Azerbaijan will now foot the bill for the family’s often incompetent attempts to mine the country’s mineral wealth – all at a time when the country is suffering a financial crisis.
The news was quietly released as the world was celebrating the long-awaited release from prison of Azerbaijani investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova. Ismayilova, who has reported extensively about corruption by the First Family, has been in prison in Baku since her arrest on Dec. 5, 2014. She was set free after her final appeal hearing Wednesday at the Supreme Court of Azerbaijan, two days before her 40th birthday.
BAKU. May 26, 2016 (RFE/RL): RFE/RL journalist Khadija Ismayilova released from an Azerbaijani prison on May 25, said she was able to remain optimistic in custody, despite her ordeal.She spent 537 days in jail on a series of charges which international observers said were retribution for her investigative reporting on corruption connected to Azerbaijan’s ruling family.This week her sentence was reduced from 7 1/2 years to a suspended term of 3 1/2 years, and she walked free.In an interview one day after her release, she called on others to keep fighting for those unjustly imprisoned:
BAKU. May 25, 2016 (RFE/RL): Azerbaijan’s Supreme Court has ordered that RFE/RL journalist Khadija Ismayilova be released from custody after reducing her prison term from 7 1/2 years in custody to a suspended term of 3 1/2 years.
The court made the decision on May 25 after hearing an appeal by the journalist.
"This is a great day for Khadija, and for all journalists and for free speech everywhere," RFE/RL Editor in Chief Nenad Pejic said. "We are overjoyed for Khadija and her family and can't wait for her to get back to work."
The court reversed Ismayilova's convictions on charges of misappropriation of property and abuse of position, but upheld her convictions for illegal entrepreneurship and tax evasion.
Ismayilova was not in court at the time. Her lawyer, Fariz Namazly, told AFP that "we expect her to leave prison later in the evening."
WASHINGTON. May 25, 2016: Yesterday, May 24, the US Senator John McCain was interviewed by the Azerbaijani Service of the Voice of America regarding the human rights conditions and the situation with political prisoners in Azerbaijan:
BAKU. May 24, 2016: If you believe in good omens, a rare season of amnesty augurs well for Khadija Ismayilova's appeal for prison release.
The RFE/RL investigative journalist is challenging her 7 1/2-year sentence for tax evasion before the Azerbaijani Supreme Court on May 25, just three days before the country celebrates its annual Republic Day with a mass amnesty, proposed by the country's first lady, that anticipates the release of some 3,500 prisoners convicted of minor crimes. Although Ismayilova's criminal conviction makes her ineligible for the pardon, there is speculation that she may benefit from the confluence of events.
Ismayilova's appeal also follows a snap presidential pardon in March of 14 political prisoners, including human rights activist Rasul Jafarov and members of the N!DA pro-democracy youth movement. A 15th prisoner, human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev, was released less than two weeks later.
BAKU. May 18, 2016: Two youth activists in Azerbaijan have accused police in the capital of beating them in an unsuccessful attempt to force them to confess to vandalizing a monument, and then charging the pair with bogus drug offenses when they didn't break.
International rights groups have condemned the authorities' treatment of Giyas Ibrahimov, 22, and Bayram Mammadov, 21, and demanded an investigation into the circumstances of the case.
The two were reportedly detained on May 10 on suspicion of painting graffiti on a statue of former Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev, father of the current leader, Ilham Aliyev.
They leveled their allegations in court testimony in the capital, Baku, on May 12, according to RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service.
The court sent the two to pretrial detention but ordered a probe into the police abuse allegations.
Human rights activists accuse authorities in Baku of routinely trumping up drug charges against activists in an effort to intimidate them.
BAKU. May 13, 2016: The local court in Baku charged two members of N!DA Civic Youth Movement - Bayram Mammadov and Giyasaddin Ibrahim - with drug possession. The local police arranged a thinly veiled operation “discovering” one kilogram of heroin in Bayram Mammadov’s house and charging Giyasaddin Ibrahim with similar charges. The police operation followed immediately after some unidentified youth activists mocked the former Azerbaijani dictator Heydar Aliyev, the father of the incumbent Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev and the founder of the Aliyev regime in Azerbaijan.
On May 10, the birthday of Heydar Aliyev which the Azerbaijani government celebrated as “flower holiday” since 2003, unidentified youth activists wrote “Happy Slave Day” (the word ‘flower’(gül) and ‘slave’(qul) rhyme in Azeri language) on Heydar Ailyev’s monument in front of the Central Bank of Azerbaijan in Baku. They also wrote “Fuck the System” on the same monument.
By M. Patrucic, E. Rose, I. Velska and K. Ismayilova, OCCRP Project
LONDON. May 10, 2016: With a wide semi-circular entrance hall and doormen in tops-and-tails, the apartment building at 199 Knightsbridge in London is all glass, polished marble, and clean lines. Advertised as an enclave of private residential apartments in the capital’s heart, the penthouse of the prestigious development is yet another home for Leyla and Arzu Aliyeva, daughters of the president of Azerbaijan.
It is the latest multimillion property secretly owned by the Aliyevs to be discovered, part of an empire amassed since 2003 when Ilham Aliyev took over from his father as president of the oil-rich country. OCCRP has identified over US$140 million in luxury apartments the family maintains around the globe and these are just the known properties.
Other international properties include a US$ 25 million London mansion; a flat valued at up to US$ 8 million overlooking the Speakers’ Corner of Hyde Park; nine waterfront mansions in Dubai valued at US$ 44 million; a dacha near Moscow worth at least US$ 37 million; and a US$ 1.1 million villa in an exclusive neighborhood in the Czech spa town of Karlovy Vary.
WASHINGTON. May 7, 2016: Overshadowed by the massive Panama Papers leak, another series of recent reports have shed new light on illicit relations between Western organizations and senior officials in both Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. As detailed by Australia’s Fairfax Media and the Huffington Post, a trove of leaked emails have revealed how Monaco-based Unaoil acted for years as a “bribe factory” between Western corporations — Halliburton and Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR), namely — and numerous Caspian clients. Globally, according to the outlets, Unaoil was tied to “billions of dollars of government contracts [that] were awarded as the direct result of bribes paid on behalf of firms” like Halliburton and KBR.
The new information comes from a series of hundreds of thousands of emails linked to Unaoil’s chief executive, Cyrus Ahsani, resulting in the “biggest leak of confidential files in the history of the oil industry.” Unaoil, which “specializes in paying bribes for multinational clients,” according to the outlets, was raided by Monegasque authorities earlier in April as a result of the leak.
WASHINGTON, DC. May 2, 2016: Built in 1900, located in Washington’s most diverse neighborhood with some of the city’s finest museums and foreign embassies, a historic Dupont Circlehousehas been the desire of many prospective byers since its major renovation last year.
The house, located between R and 21st streets, looks marvelous from the outside, albeit its windows are filled with white cover, and a security camera is mounted above the wall to the mansion’s driveway. There is also a mysterious sign “H” that towers on top of the building.
“That “H” [sign] has nothing to do with the neighborhood, perhaps it might refer to some name, - definitely not Hillary [Clinton] - as the place is owned by foreigners,” giggles a local resident who agreed to share his opinion about the mansion without being identified.
BAKU. April 28, 2016 (RFE/RL): Azerbaijani officials said on April 28 that one civilian was killed and 8 were injured by an artillery strike from the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh overnight.
The statement came hours after Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry claimed that forces in Nagorno-Karabakh had shelled Azerbaijan's Terter and Agdam districts in violation of a cease-fire deal that went into effect on April 5.
De facto officials from the breakaway territory rejected Azerbaijan's claims and accused Baku of using tanks, mortars, flame throwers, and multiple-launch rocket systems for military attacks against the region.
Separatist leaders in Stepanakert said earlier this week that three of their soldiers were killed by Azerbaijani attacks.
WASHINGTON. April 25, 2016: The scheme was simple enough.
In May of 2013, the government of Azerbaijan, via its State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR), injected $750,000 into an obscure Texas-based non-profit, the Assembly of the Friends of Azerbaijan (AFAZ).
The assembly then flipped the funds into a series of secondary non-profits – a constellation of US-based 501(c)(3) organizations scattered across America, all pushing Turkic interests.
A few weeks later, nine members of the US Congress touched down in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, flown and feted by those very funds. And it was quite a gathering: sumptuous dinners, fireworks displays, gifts of hand-woven carpets, crystal tea sets, silk scarves, and DVDs praising the country’s president—all free of charge, and costing well in excess of the permissible limits of gifts to Congress.
It was also, according to a recent report from the US’s Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), one of the most egregious ethics violations Washington has seen since the days of uber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose rule-Flouting activities spurred the US’s last round of ethics reforms nearly a decade ago.
YEREVAN. April 18, 2016: 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.
The exchange comes on the heels of a four-day flare-up in frontline violence between Armenia and Azerbaijan that was the worst since the signature of a ceasefire in 1994. With tensions still running high, how Russia chooses to support Armenia, the only South Caucasus member of Moscow’s economic and military alliances, matters much to Armenians.
When faced with military aggression by Azerbaijan, Yerevan believes it is entitled to support from its ally, even if this ally also doubles as a supposedly objective mediator for talks with Baku.
WASHINGTON. April 14, 2016: When Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s president, visited Washington later last month, it was an opportunity for Secretary of State John Kerry, as well as others in the US foreign policy establishment, to publicly voice their concerns over crackdown against journalists, especially the attacks on US-funded media group, RFE/RL in Baku. They chose not to do so. Well, at least publicly.
Aliyev government, in its turn, seems intent on ensuring American support in its conflict with the independent voices through investing in lobbying activity; something that they have found reasonable to believe is paying off.
As it was reported earlier, Podesta, which guarantees Azerbaijani government’s access to some of the most powerful people in Washington, have been receiving approximately $50,000 per month from the Azerbaijani Embassy, for its service.