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Azerbaijan arrests opposition activists during Covid-19 outbreak

24 March 2020
Police officer in Azerbaijan. Photo: APA.

After Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev delivered a speech in which he threatened opposition forces with a ‘purge’, there were several arrests of prominent opposition members. 

In the speech, delivered on 19 March, Aliyev called any opposition that did not want to enter ‘into dialogue’ with the authorities ‘traitors and corrupt representatives of a fifth column’,

Three days later, on 22 March, Tofig Yagublu, an opposition politician from the Musavat Party, wrote on Facebook that he had been attacked in Baku.

‘My parked car was demonstratively hit [by another car] and then they [the people in the other car] attacked me’, he wrote.  

Ehsan Zahidov, the chief spokesperson for the Interior Ministry, told Report that Yagublu ‘punched’ the occupants of the other car, a married couple, and attacked them with a screwdriver causing them ‘various bodily injuries’. 

At a court hearing on Monday, Yagublu was convicted of hooliganism and sentenced to three months in prison.

Tofig Yagublu in front of the Nizami District Court. Photo: Nigar Hazi/Facebook.

‘New wave of repressions’ and ‘coronavirus prisoners’

On the same day, Yagublu was arrested, Anar Malikov, a member of the Popular Front Party, was placed under administrative arrest for 10 days because of allegedly ‘violating quarantine’. A day earlier Malikov reported on Facebook that he had been called in to see the police. 

On 20 March, the opposition Muslim Unity Movement held an event in front of the central metro station in Baku, during which they distributed medical masks and information brochures about Covid-19. 

Elchin Gasimov, the deputy chair of the Movement, told OC Media that the next day one of their active members, Samir Babayev, was called into a police station and was placed under administrative arrest for one month, allegedly for disobeying the police.  

Gasimov also added that all Movement members who participated in the event were called in to see the police though they were released after being given a warning. 

Popular Front Party leader Ali Karimli called Babayev, Yagublu, and Malikov,  ‘coronavirus prisoners’. 

In a Facebook post published on 23 March, Fuad Gakhramanli, a prominent member of the Popular Front Party,  addressed the Interior Minister and the Prosecutor General of Azerbaijan about a series of anonymous threats he received via Whatsapp, in which it was demanded of him to stop his political activities.

He said that the texts threatened him with ‘broken bones’ and that he would face ‘bad obstacles’. Gahramanli published the four phone numbers from which he received threats.

These latest arrests are not the first to happen this month, as a number of opposition activists were also arrested several weeks prior. On 13 March, the Committee Against Repression and Torture, an Azerbaijan-based human rights organisation, announced about ‘a new wave of repressions’ against the government’s critics had begun. 

‘A historical necessity’ 

‘Look at what they say on social networks, they are full of hatred and provocation. They seem to want riots to happen. They want turmoil. They want panic’, President Aliyev said during his speech on 19 March. 

He added that if, due to the Covid-19 outbreak, a state of emergency were to be declared the ‘isolation of representatives of the fifth column’ would become ‘a historical necessity’. 

The National Council of Democratic Forces condemned Aliyev’s speech saying that it was ‘fascist’ towards the Azerbaijani opposition.  They also accused Aliyev of possibly planning false ‘plots’ that would give him the justification for repressing the opposition.   

Ali Ahmadov, the deputy chair of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, wrote on Facebook on 23 March about ‘two viruses’ in Azerbaijan, Covid-19 and the ‘political virus’ that was the opposition, specifically Ali Karimli. He wrote that the two should be fought against at ‘the same time’. 

Amendments to the Law on Information

On 17 March, the Azerbaijani Parliament adopted amendments to the Law on Information as part of the measures adopted to fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. 

According to the amendments, internet users and the owners of internet resources should not spread information, which ‘damages the life and health of people, leads to significant damage of their property, a massive violation of public safety, the activities of vital facilities in the field of finance, transport, communications, industry, energy and socio-infrastructural facilities, as well as leading to other socially dangerous consequences’.

Journalist Ilgar Atayev was one of the first people called in to see the police because of the new amendments. He had made a post on Facebook about coronavirus. He told OC Media that it was just ‘a simple joke’. 

‘[I wrote] that one woman strangled her husband who had asked her to bring him tea every minute’, he said. ‘I meant that during isolation men will irritate women that much that they may strangle us eventually.’ 

According to him, he was called to a police station, where he was given a warning and released.

Rights lawyer Rasul Jafarov, the head of Human Rights Club, an Azerbaijan-based rights organisation, told OC Media despite that though under the conditions of a pandemic the government may impose certain restrictions on freedoms, most of the people who were called in to see the police since the amendments have been linked to the opposition. 

Leyla Aliyeva, a visiting scholar at the Russian and East European Studies Centre at Oxford University, told OC Media that for governments around the world the Covid-19 pandemic is a convenient moment to repress political opposition. 

‘International attention is focused on the existential threat, not freedom’, she said, adding that ‘traditional liberal freedoms’ have been limited due to the outbreak, and that ‘most importantly’ protests have been made difficult if not impossible due to the limits on large congregations of people. 

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