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Azerbaijani Opposition Leader Vows Return To Baku, Despite Fearing Arrest

Azerbaijani opposition leader Rustam Ibragimbekov
Azerbaijani opposition leader Rustam Ibragimbekov
The Azerbaijani opposition's pick for president, Rustam Ibragimbekov, has vowed to return to Baku next week, despite fearing arrest.

In an interview with RFE/RL in Brussels, the screenwriter-turned-political figure insisted he would go ahead with plans to fly to Azerbaijan on July 31 and start preparing his campaign.

"I wouldn't exclude that I will be arrested as soon as I land, or in two or three days," he said. "But I understand that the main goal is to prevent me from participating in the election, from the opportunity to register [as a candidate]."

The 74-year-old Ibragimbekov is known across the former Soviet Union and beyond as the screenwriter behind such classics as "The White Sun of the Desert" and the Academy Award-winning "Burnt by the Sun."

Azerbaijan's National Council of Democratic Forces, an umbrella group uniting the country's main opposition parties, backed Ibragimbekov this month as their choice to challenge authoritarian President Ilham Aliyev in October's election.

The Aliyev family has ruled Azerbaijan for more than two decades. A 2009 constitutional amendment abolishing term limits allows President Aliyev to potentially stay in office indefinitely.

Unconfirmed reports appeared in the Azerbaijani media this week saying that the government may be preparing to arrest Ibragimbekov upon his return.

Citing unnamed sources, the Olaylar news agency reported that authorities are preparing to arrest the opposition leader on charges of tax evasion.

In January, prosecutors launched a criminal case into alleged tax evasion by Azerbaijan's Union of Cinematographers, which Ibragimbekov heads. According to local media reports, the Tax Ministry questioned one of the union's employees on July 25.

The previous day, the opposition "Yenu Musavat" newspaper asked the prosecutor-general's office if it has opened a criminal case against Ibragimbekov. A spokesperson for the office was quoted as saying that they were "not able to give any information on that because of investigation secrets."

Ibragimbekov told RFE/RL that "a representative of the office of the prosecutor-general has made a statement that a criminal case is going to be brought against me."

"This means that, being afraid of my participation in the [presidential] election, the Azerbaijani authorities are ready to do anything to prevent me from taking part in the election," he added. "These would be completely fabricated charges that were urgently prepared against me and all this is related to my return to Azerbaijan...[The government] can kill [people], they can imprison [people], they can compromise [people] using all sorts of means."

One hurdle that Ibragimbekov already faces is in regard to his citizenship. He holds both an Azerbaijani and a Russian passport, and Azerbaijan's constitution does not permit individuals holding dual citizenship to run for president.

Ibragimbekov has applied to have his Russian passport rescinded, but the decision could take months -- a fact that has led some observers to highlight how important Moscow's interests are in the process.

Ibragimbekov is in Brussels this week for meetings with EU diplomats as part of an effort to rally Western support for Azerbaijan's pro-democracy opposition and to draw attention to conditions surrounding the upcoming vote. That effort also took him to Washington in June.

Written by RFE/RL correspondent Richard Solash based on an interview by RFE/RL Brussels correspondent Rikard Jozwiak, with contributions from RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service
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