BAKU -- Azerbaijan has arrested a prominent opposition politician, Tofig Yagublu, in what Human Rights Watch (HRW) calls "another disturbing example of the government's contempt for free speech and political critics."
The New York-based rights group said on March 25 that Yagublu was arrested on spurious hooliganism charges, days after President Ilham Aliyev suggested he would use anti-coronavirus measures against the country's political opposition. https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/03/25/azerbaijan-opposition-leader-arrested
Azerbaijan's government has "a long-standing pattern of pursuing trumped-up charges against government critics in order to silence them," said Giorgi Gogia, HRW's associate director for Europe and Central Asia.
"The case against Yagublu falls squarely in that pattern," he said.
Yagublu is a member of the Musavat Party and a senior politician in the National Council of Democratic Forces, a coalition of opposition parties and activists.
He often raises concerns about human rights in Azerbaijan.
On March 23, a Baku court ordered Yagublu to be held for three months in pretrial custody pending an investigation into charges of "hooliganism committed with a weapon or an object used as a weapon," HRW said.
According to the Interior Ministry, Yagublu is accused of using a wrench to inflict bodily harm.
Yagublu denies the charges, which are related to a car accident that HRW said, "appears to have been staged to provide grounds for a bogus case."
If convicted, Yagublu could face up to seven years in prison.
HRW also noted that in a recent speech about challenges posed by the coronavirus, Aliyev described Azerbaijan's political opposition as traitors, enemies, and a fifth column that might try to destabilize the country.
The rights group said Aliev "strongly implied that he would use the fight against the virus to crack down on the political opposition."
Gogia said, "Instead of providing essential information and addressing public concerns on COVID-19, the government is shamefully trying to usurp this pandemic to continue its relentless crackdown against its critics."
HRW said the Azerbaijani authorities had "periodically arrested Yagublu, subjected him to ill-treatment, and warned him to stop his political activism and criticism against the government."