It is conceivable, although judging by past practice unlikely, that the arrest on August 24 of Mehman Aliyev, longtime head of Azerbaijan's last remaining independent news agency, Turan, may come to be seen as a turning point in that country's track record of suppression of dissent and media freedom.
Aliyev was released from pretrial custody on September 11, but he remains under police supervision and the charges against him of tax evasion and illegal entrepreneurship have not been dropped despite pressure from the U.S. State Department to do so. The Tax Ministry has, however, withdrawn its demand for over 37,000 manats ($21,759) in back taxes that served as the grounds for the charge of tax evasion, the news portal Caucasian Knot reported on September 16.
Four developments may, separately or in combination, have influenced the decision to release Aliyev from pretrial custody. The first is pressure from the U.S. State Department and from international organizations, including the Council of Europe and Reporters Without Borders (RSF). U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (Democrat-Illinois) had proposed adding to a draft bill on foreign aid for 2018 sanctions against the Azerbaijani officials involved.
The second is an investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) that concluded that Baku operated a $2.9 billion slush fund from which bribes or sweeteners were reportedly channeled via shell companies and European banks to European politicians, summaries of which were published in the British newspaper The Guardian and elsewhere in early September.
Ali Hasanov, a longtime aid to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (no relation to Mehman), told the Turkish daily Hurriyet that those "groundless, biased, groundless, and provocative" allegations were concocted and spread by British intelligence and the "Armenian lobby."
President Aliyev’s office similarly issued a statement blaming the “Armenian lobby” and international financier George Soros. It explicitly denied that either President Aliyev or any members of his family “have any relation to the charges contained in the [OCCRP] report.” The release of the Turan head could thus have been intended to counter the negative impact of those damaging allegations.
The third is that Mehman Aliyev had himself written to the president after being assured by staff from the country’s human rights ombudsman that they would do everything in their power to secure his release. Mehman Aliyev told journalists that he informed the president about the work of his agency and its commitment to the highest journalistic standards and professional ethics. He said he asked to be released from pretrial detention but did not engage in any “negotiations” to that end. He also added that he did not wish to be the cause of international sanctions against Azerbaijan.
The fourth and final development was a rare public statement by members of Azerbaijan’s political and artistic establishment implicitly criticizing the authorities’ treatment of Mehman Aliyev. On September 5, the same day that a Baku court rejected a formal application by Aliyev’s lawyer to release him from pretrial custody, a group of 15 parliamentarians, prominent writers, and three journalists appealed to President Aliyev for Aliyev’s release on bail. They stressed his services to his country and the high regard in which he, and Turan, are held abroad.
It is of course possible that that appeal was orchestrated by the presidential administration to create a pretext for apparent magnanimity. But no such public appeal preceded a second, unrelated move: the early release from prison on September 14 of 14 of the 17 men jailed in January in connection with an altercation between Muslim believers and police in the village of Nardaran, a hotbed of radical Shi'ite Islam, in November 2015 during which two police officers died.
Then on September 15, Faiq Amirov, financial director of the opposition newspaper Azadlyq, was released from prison after serving two months of a 39-month term on charges of tax evasion and inciting interethnic hatred to which he had pleaded not guilty. The prison term was commuted to a suspended sentence.
Fuad Aleskerov, an adviser to President Aliyev, told the news portal Caucasian Knot that the release of Mehman Aliyev and the 14 men from Nardaran is in line with “the implementation of the humane ideas and principles” outlined in a presidential edict from February on "making criminal punishment more humane."
Aleskerov did not explain why that edict is being applied so selectively: 157 other Azerbaijani citizens who have been formally designated political prisoners remain in prison. They include Talekh Bagirzade, a charismatic young Islamic theologian serving a life sentence for his imputed role in the Nardaran events; Ilgar Mamedov, leader of the opposition movement Republican Alternative (ReAl); and Gozel Bayramly, deputy chair of the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front. Bayramly was arrested on May 25 at the border between Georgia and Azerbaijan and charged with attempting to smuggle $12,000 into the country. She is in poor health and, according to her lawyer, can barely walk without the support of her cellmates.
In presumably giving the green light for the release of Mehman Aliyev and the 14 Nardaran villagers, the presidential administration may have calculated that the PR benefits of releasing from custody a journalist known and respected in the West far outweighed the possible damage his agency could inflict, especially in terms of influencing developments within the country, and that the Nardaran villagers posed little danger given that their influence does not extend nationwide. That pragmatic line of reasoning would also explain why international appeals to release jailed opposition politicians such as Mamedov have gone unheeded.
On the other hand, the releases could reflect the tactic of reprisal followed by concession in the face of international pressure that dates back to the tenure of Ilham Aliyev’s father and predecessor as president, Heydar Aliyev. For example, just four weeks before the November 2000 parliamentary elections, Heydar Aliyev pressured the Central Election Commission to reverse its earlier rulings barring all but five of the 13 parties that applied to contest the ballot under the party list system from doing so. Politicians and observers in Baku suggested at the time that those reversals were in part a response to pressure from the U.S. State Department and in part motivated by concern not to jeopardize Azerbaijan's acceptance into full membership of the Council of Europe. That leniency did not, however, continue after the elections.
It is thus too early to predict whether the release of Mehman Aliyev marks the start of a less heavy-handed policy toward Azerbaijan’s independent media, or was simply intended to deflect the threat of U.S. sanctions. And even if the pressure on journalists and bloggers is relaxed somewhat, pressure on opposition parties, whom President Aliyev branded in February “a fifth column...out to damage most sacred values of the state,” is more likely to intensify in the run-up to the presidential election due in the fall of 2018.