Authorities in Azerbaijan have arrested seven officials with the National Security Ministry, accusing them of abuse of power just days after the ministry’s chief was sacked.
The arrests come as President Ilham Aliyev’s government continues to tighten its grip on opposition groups, independent media, and overall political life in the oil-rich, ex-Soviet republic on the shores of the Caspian Sea.
The Prosecutor-General's Office said in an October 20 statement that the security officials were arrested on suspicion of "illegal interference in the activities of business entities."
No further details were given.
Azerbaijani media reported that those arrested included Natavan Mirvatova, who heads the ministry’s technical operations administration and was awarded a medal for her work two years ago.
On October 17, Aliyev’s office announced the dismissal of National Security Minister Eldar Mahmudov, who had served since 2004, just after Aliyev became president, and was widely seen as a loyal ally to the Azerbaijani leader.
Opposition politicians complained that Aliyev’s failure to explain the reason for Mahmudov’s firing showed that there is no transparency in the country’s political decision-making process.
Aliyev also dismissed his previous national security minister in July 2004 without providing a reason.
Aliyev became president in 2003 after the death of his father, Heydar Aliyev, a former KGB officer who had steered the country through the chaos of post-Soviet independence and a disastrous war with Armenia in the early 1990s.
Vast oil and gas resources, located mainly in offshore fields in the Caspian Sea, have drawn major investments from international oil companies, including ExxonMobil, BP, and Chevron. The influx of wealth has helped transform Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, giving it a glittering skyline.
The country is set to hold parliamentary elections next month, though many observers predict that the ruling party will again win a majority of seats and that the vote will be marred by a lack of transparency and other problems.
The Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has canceled its mission to monitor the election, saying that too many restrictions had been imposed on them.
Aliyev’s reelection in 2013 has been followed by a crackdown on human rights workers, journalists, and opposition activists. Authorities have also barred Amnesty International from working in the country.
Among the journalists who have been prosecuted is Khadija Ismayilova, a prominent investigative reporter and RFE/RL contributor who was sentenced to more than seven years in prison after a conviction on embezzlement and tax evasion that observers called outrageous and brutal.