Having failed to persuade key defendants in the so-called “Nardaran trial” to implicate Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP) Chairman Ali Kerimli in an alleged plot by Islamic extremists to incite mass disturbances with a view to seizing power, the Azerbaijani authorities have now changed tack. Over the past several days, four AHCP activists have been apprehended on a variety of charges; one of them is accused of being a follower of exiled Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen, who Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claims was behind the botched coup attempt last month.
According to Azerbaijani presidential administration deputy head Novruz Mamedov, several Azerbaijani opposition parties have links to Gulen’s Hizmet movement. He warned that all its supporters in Azerbaijan will be identified.
The AHCP, together with the Musavat Party, is one of Azerbaijan’s longest-established opposition parties -- it is the successor organization of the Azerbaijani Popular Front established in 1989 -- and one of very few ever to have won parliamentary representation. Kerimli, 50, who has served as party chairman since 2000, was elected to parliament in 1995 and 2000.
Kerimli has for years been denied a passport for travel abroad, and the Justice Ministry declined late last year to recognize as legal his reelection as AHCP chairman.
Of the four AHCP activists detained, Qadim Bekirov was arrested on August 18 and remanded for 25 days for resisting police. Vasif Niftiyev, detained the following day, has not yet been formally charged. Neither has Faiq Amirov, Kerimli’s aide and financial director of the AHCP newspaper Azadlyq, which is struggling to pay its outstanding debts to the state printing house. (UPDATE: A court in Baku ruled on August 22 to place Amirov under arrest for three months on charges of inciting religious hatred.)
The fourth is Fuad Ahmedli, head of the AHCP’s youth organization in Baku’s Khatay district. He had previously been detained in May and December 2015, reportedly for as retribution for criticizing the Azerbaijani authorities.
Police claim that during a search of Ahmedli’s home on August 18, they confiscated banned religious literature and CDs, copies of Gulen’s sermons, and documents originating with his Hizmet movement.Ahmedli’s father denies this, however: he is quoted by the news site Caucasus Knot as saying that the police took only works of literature and some leaflets published in the late 1980s by the emerging nationalist-democratic movement. Asked why they were confiscating those writings, an officer reportedly replied “We’ve got to take something.”
Kerimli denied any connection between the AHCP and Gulen, noting that when the July 15 coup took placed he immediately affirmed his full support for the Turkish leadership. He branded the detentions of the four AHCP supporters politically motivated.
Ahmedli, who worked for the mobile phone company Azerfon, has been charged with illegally circulating personnel data of mobile phone subscribers.On August 19, the State Security Service and the Prosecutor-General’s Office released a statement accusing Ahmedli, together with Shahin Israilov of Bakcell Ltd and Etibar Musayev of Azercell Telecom, of supplying a fourth man, identified as Vuqar Qasymov, with details of the mobile phone accounts of “numerous” subscribers. Israilov, Musayev, and Qasymov have also been arrested.
The AHCP has released a statement branding the arrest of Ahmedli the start of “a new wave of reprisals” in retaliation for the party’s uncompromising criticism of the planned referendum on constitutional amendments intended, in the view of many opposition activists, to ensure the rule in perpetuum of the family of President Ilham Aliyev.
Kerimli formally asked to be allowed to attend the session at which Azerbaijan’s Constitutional Court was to rule on whether the proposals to extend the presidential term from five to seven years, abolish the minimum age limit of 35 for presidential candidates, and introduce the posts of first vice president and vice president, both to be appointed by the incumbent, are constitutional, but was refused. He subsequently denounced that refusal as evidence that “the country’s entire judicial system, including the Constitutional Court, is controlled by one person -- Ilham Aliyev.”
Kerimli has condemned the planned amendments as destroying the principle of the division of powers, and suggested that Aliyev’s motive for proposing them was mistrust of unnamed “oligarchs” among his immediate entourage and within parliament.
The AHCP is not the only political force to be targeted for its negative stance with regard to the referendum, which is scheduled for September 26. Three members of the civic movement Republican Alternative -- Elshan Gasymov, Togrul Ismail, and ReAl executive secretary Natiq Cafarli -- have likewise been apprehended. Gasymov and Ismail were charged with resisting the police, while Cafarli has been charged with obtaining grants illegally and remanded in custody for four months.
ReAlis trying to collect the requisite 45,000 signatures to register a group that will formally campaign against the proposed constitutional amendments, which it described in a statement as “intended to preserve the existing authoritarian system” and contrary to “the traditions of democratic statehood.”