Prague, 19 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- It is an affair enmeshed in confusion, apparent subterfuge, and all-around paranoia. And, incongruously, at the heart of it all lies the International Criminal Police Organization, or Interpol. Its notification, posted worldwide, that Azerbaijan had issued a warrant for Rasul Quliyev -- a so-called red notice -- was used to hold the opposition leader in Ukraine.
Andriy Ivantsov, chief of the police station in the Crimean city of Simferopol, where Quliyev's plane landed to refuel on 17 October, confirms that Quliyev is being held in Ukraine pending clarification of his case: "[Quliyev] is not detained, but his movement in Ukraine is somewhat restricted because he is under an Interpol warrant, requested by the Republic of Azerbaijan. He is wanted by Azerbaijan's law enforcement agencies on several charges, so he was asked to come here to the police station. We are clarifying the situation now. We're in telephone contact with Azerbaijan and Interpol to decide his future."
Thousands of Azerbaijanis had waited in suspense for Quliyev's chartered flight from London to touch down at Baku's Haidar Aliyev International Airport. Quliyev's Democratic Party is one of the key players in Azadlyq (Freedom), an electoral bloc that has united the opposition and is mounting a credible challenge to the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan (New Azerbaijan) party. But they had to wait far away from the arrival lounge -- Azerbaijan's security forces had blocked off access to the airport to all but ticket holders -- and, as it subsequently emerged, in vain.
Retired Colonel Bob Stewart, a former British UN commander in Bosnia-Herzegovina, who was accompanying Quliyev as an independent observer, explains what happened: "The intention was to refuel there, providing the signals from Azerbaijan were good. However, they were not. [Quliyev] had information via a satellite phone that people were being arrested in Baku, that the airport was closed, that he would not actually receive permission to land at Baku. And so consequently, when we landed at Simferopol, the intention was to refuel the aircraft and fly back to London."
The Azerbaijani authorities say Quliyev backed off at the last moment because he feared arrest in Azerbaijan.
Prosecutor-General Zakir Garalov said the authorities were just waiting for Quliyev to fall into their hands: "Our prisons are maintained according to EU standards, and we have prepared a special place for [Quliyev] in prison. We have been searching for him for a long time, and even Interpol has been involved. So, as soon as he arrives in Azerbaijan, the court's decision will be executed."
What happens next, according to the head of the Crimean police press office, Oleksandr Dombrovsky, depends on Azerbaijan. It issued an arrest warrant for Quliyev after he fled the country in 1996, accusing him of corruption and of embezzling more than $100 million while he was a manager at a state oil refinery in the early 1990s -- when Azerbaijan was still part of the Soviet Union. Quliyev denies the charges, which he says are politically motivated.
Dombrovsky says the length of Quliyev's stay in Ukraine will be decided by materials Azerbaijani officials are due to send to Ukrainian authorities. At first sight, the Quliyev case appears a little strange because he had lived in the United States for nearly nine years -- presumably with Interpol's knowledge -- without once being detained.
Why, then, was the Interpol red notice activated when he entered Ukraine? Oleg Bobinov of Emerging Markets Risk Advisory Group in Moscow explains: "What happens is the law enforcement authorities of a member country will send an international arrest warrant via a local Interpol office to the central hub in Lyons, in France, and Interpol will distribute the warrant to other member countries. But then the authorities in each of the member countries are free to decide on whether to take action based on the warrant or not."
The United States took no action because it accepted Quliyev as a bona fide asylum seeker. The Ukrainian authorities, on the other hand, appear to have been caught unawares. Alert police officers in Simferopol spotted the Interpol red notice and ordered Quliyev's temporary detention without consulting Kyiv. The Ukrainian government is now trying to get out of the mess. It doesn't want to antagonize the government of Azerbaijan. But neither does it want to disappoint Azerbaijani opposition supporters. For the moment, they still look up to Ukraine's Orange Revolution as an example they would like to follow.
For more news about events in Azerbaijan, see RFE/RL's webpage News and Features on Azerbaijan