Just days after Baku's Court for Serious Crimes handed down lengthy prison terms to 18 men charged with plotting a coup d'etat at the behest of Iran, the unequivocally pro-Western political movement ReAl (Republican Alternative) has been accused of agreeing to collaborate with, and accepting funding from, Iranian diplomats.
Those allegations, which ReAl has dismissed as "utter rubbish," were made in a 1,080 word article, said to be based on information from an unidentified "reliable source," that was posted on January 27 on the website Haqqin.az, which has a track record of criticizing opposition parties. The author claimed that, at a recent meeting with staffers from the Iranian Embassy in Baku, ReAl leaders agreed to act as intermediaries between embassy personnel and representatives of other Azerbaijani opposition groups. Also discussed, according to Haqqin.az, was the possibility of ReAl receiving funding from Tehran.
The Azerbaijani Prosecutor-General's Office immediately launched an investigation, summoning ReAl board member Azer Gasymly for questioning on January 28 and founder member and ReAl executive secretary Natiq Cafarli two days later. They were interrogated for five and 2 1/2 hours, respectively.
In separate comments to the news portal Caucasian Knot, the two men said they were questioned about a visit on January 19 to ReAl's Baku office by the second secretary at the Iranian Embassy to discuss the political and economic situation in Azerbaijan and the state of bilateral relations, and also asked whether they had accepted Iranian funding.
Gasymly made the point that such meetings are not illegal, and that staff members from numerous Western embassies, including those of the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the Netherlands, had previously held such consultations with ReAl. He recalled that the Prosecutor-General's Office had similarly summoned him for questioning after a meeting with U.S. Embassy personnel in September 2016.
Cafarli denied that ReAl had accepted money from the Iranian diplomats, and recalled that the movement was previously accused of accepting Western funding. He personally is still under investigation on charges brought in August 2016 of exceeding his authority and misusing a grant.
ReAl was established in December 2008 to campaign against proposed sweeping constitutional amendments, in particular the abolition of any limit on the number of presidential terms one person may serve. Those changes were nonetheless approved in a nationwide referendum in March 2009. ReAl's stated objectives are the transformation of Azerbaijan from a presidential to a parliamentary republic, building a democratic society, and integration into NATO and the European Union.
In the November 2015 parliamentary elections, according to Cafarli, ReAl's candidates in the 10 electoral districts where they succeeded in registering garnered between 55 and 60 percent of the vote. The movement demanded the annulment of the official returns showing far lower figures, which it said were falsified.
Independent commentator Azer Rashidoglu construed the probe into ReAl's purported collaboration with the Iranian Embassy as intended to blacken the movement in the eyes of Western public opinion and undermine the campaign by the Council of Europe and other organizations to secure the release of its Chairman Ilqar Mamedov, who is serving a seven-year prison term for his alleged participation in mass unrest in January 2013 in the provincial town of Ismayilli, 200 kilometers west of Baku.
On January 23, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe head Pedro Agramunt formally urged the Azerbaijani authorities to release Mamedov, whom he described as "a colleague and friend."
Even Haqqin.az admitted that it is "illogical" for ReAl to have made common cause with Iran, given its pro-Western orientation. That does not mean, however, that the prosecutor's office will not proceed to cobble together a case against those ReAl leaders who met with the Iranian diplomats, or that a court might not find them guilty despite the lack of any hard evidence.
That is what happened to the 18 defendants at the so-called Nardaran trial, who were arrested in November 2015 and went on trial in August 2016 on charges of forming an armed group with the aim of seizing power on orders from Tehran. All pleaded not guilty.
Theologian and Movement for Muslim Unity head Taleh Bagirzade and his deputy Abbas Huseynov were jailed for 20 years, and 15 other residents of the village of Nardaran, whose devoutly Shi'ite population look for spiritual guidance to Iran rather than to Azerbaijan's Muslim Spiritual Board, for between 10 and 19 years.
Fuad Gakhramanly, deputy head of the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, was likewise sentenced to 10 years merely for a Facebook post branding "unjust" the arrest of Bagirzade and other Nardaran residents.