KYIV -- Rights activists are criticizing the arrest in Ukraine of an Azerbaijani opposition journalist on the basis of an Interpol alert that was requested by Azerbaijan’s government.
International media freedom and human rights groups say Fikret Huseynli’s case highlights how Interpol is abused by authoritarian regimes to crack down on their political opponents abroad.
They describe Huseynli’s arrest as the latest in a series of cases outside of Azerbaijan targeting journalists and rights activists who are critical of the government in Baku.
Huseynli, a self-exiled reporter who formerly worked for Azerbaijan’s opposition Azadliq newspaper, fled to the Netherlands after he was stabbed, beaten, and left for dead by unknown assailants in Baku in 2006.
Azadliq says the attack was retaliation for reports about alleged government corruption in Baku.
Huseynli was granted political asylum by the Dutch government when he arrived there in early 2008 and has since obtained Dutch citizenship.
Huseynli now works from outside of Azerbaijan as an international correspondent for Turan TV, a Baku-based news website that is among the last opposition news organizations not to have been shut down by President Ilham Aliyev’s government.
Huseynli was detained at Boryspil International Airport near Kyiv on October 14 as he was preparing to board a flight for Germany.
Ukraine’s Border Guard Service said it arrested Huseynli because his name appeared on Interpol’s database of wanted persons.
The “red-notice” alert from Interpol informed Ukrainian police that Baku had issued warrants for Huseynli’s arrest on charges of alleged fraud, falsification of official documents, and illegal migration.
On October 17, a local court in Boryspil ruled that Huseynli should remain in custody at least until November 4 while judicial officials in Kyiv consider the merits of Baku’s extradition request.
On October 19, the Prosecutor-General’s Office in Kyiv confirmed that it was examining the Azerbaijani arrest warrants as part of its “extradition test.”
“We have up to 60 days to complete this examination,” the prosecutor-general’s spokeswoman, Larysa Sarhan, told RFE/RL.
A date for an extradition hearing has not yet been set, Sarhan said.
Huseynli’s defense attorney, Dmytro Mazurok, told RFE/RL he will appeal the Boryspil court’s arrest order against Huseynli.
Mazurok said he also will ask the Ukrainian Prosecutor-General’s Office to use its powers to nullify the ruling on the grounds that “circumstances should prevent” Huseynli’s extradition to Azerbaijan.
Interpol System Abused?
Washington-based Freedom House says Ukraine should immediately release Huseynli and stop any extradition procedures against him that are based on warrants issued by Azerbaijan.
The director of Freedom House’s Eurasia programs, Marc Behrendt, says Interpol’s alert “reflects Azerbaijan’s harassment of journalists rather than any actual criminal offense” by Huseynli.
“The accusations of Huseynli’s wrongdoing cited by Interpol show how Azerbaijan and other authoritarian governments abuse the Interpol system to persecute political opponents, journalists, and human rights activists,” Behrendt said.
For its part, Interpol says its General Secretariat publishes a “red notice” only after completing a “compliance check” into each request.
But Behrendt said Interpol needs to go further and more carefully investigate each red-notice request to prevent abuses by authoritarian regimes.
Interpol stresses that a red notice is not an international arrest warrant. Rather, it is an alert sent to police around the world notifying them about a “request to locate and provisionally arrest an individual pending extradition.”
A red-notice request must be made by one of Interpol’s 192 member countries, or by an international tribunal, “on the basis of a valid national arrest warrant,” the international police network says.
In 2016, Belarus detained and extradited to Azerbaijan an Israeli-Russian-Ukrainian citizen who had been put on Interpol’s red-notice list at Baku's request.
A Baku court convicted travel blogger Aleksander Lapshin on illegal-border-crossing charges after he visited Azerbaijan’s breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region without permission from Baku.
Sentenced to three years in an Azerbaijani prison, Lapshin was pardoned in September by Aliyev.
International media rights groups have dismissed the charges brought by Azerbaijan against both Huseynli and Lapshin, saying they are part of an autocratic government’s wider vendetta against a free press and rights activists.
They say the cases show that Aliyev’s government is trying to suppress critical reporting by intimidating journalists who live and work outside of Azerbaijan’s borders.
The Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, a nongovernmental organization founded by self-exiled Azerbaijani activist Emin Huseynov, says Kyiv should “stop contributing to the repressive steps of authoritarian countries aimed at intimidating their critics living abroad.”
Huseynov’s group is one of 26 human rights organizations that has called for Interpol to prevent the misuse of its alert system against Azerbaijani human rights activists like Leyla Yunusova and Arif Yunusov.