Azerbaijani officials, including the prime minister, deputy head of the ruling party, and human rights commissioner have been accused of attending weddings despite the ceremonies being banned due to COVID-19.
Videos of several weddings allegedly attended by officials in different parts of the country have emerged over the past week leading some to suggest that coronavirus restrictions applied only to the poor.
One of the most widely shared videos was from the wedding of former MP Ilham Aliyev and the grandaughter of Ramiz Mehdiyev, the President of the National Academy of Sciences.
Footage from the ceremony showed several other prominent officials in attendance. These included Siyavush Novruzov, an MP and Deputy Executive Secretary of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party and his wife, Sabina Aliyevа, who is the Commissioner for Human Rights.
Guests at the wedding received fines while the groom and one other were taken into custody.
In a statement on Monday evening, Mehdiyev complained that despite numerous weddings being held by other officials, only he was targeted.
‘Of course, the position of the relevant authorities on what happened is justified. Because everyone is equal before the law […] However, it is also true that during the pandemic, no one holding a wedding or engagement ceremonies, as well as committing an administrative offence, was handcuffed and demonstratively brought before a judge,’ he said.
Another video published on 20 August by YouTube channel Azerbaycan Saati (‘Azerbaijan’s hour’) allegedly shows the wedding of Prime Minister Ali Asadov’s daughter in the Saphir restaurant in Baku.
The anti-coronavirus Operational Headquarters, which Asadov heads, ruled that despite the easing of the quarantine regime from 18 August, including reopening open-air cafes and restaurants, weddings and other group ceremonies were still prohibited.
News site Virtual Azerbaijan cited a source in Asadov’s family as denying that the footage depicted Asadov’s daughter’s wedding. The source reportedly said that the wedding was planned on 7 March but cancelled by Asadov after the announcement of the quarantine regime.
Another official to be implicated was Hadi Rajabli, a former MP and member of the ruling party’s Political Council. Footage of Rajabli’s grandson’s wedding was circulated.
Officials fined and arrested
Despite footage of several weddings making the rounds, only that of former MP Ilham Aliyev and the grandaughter of Ramiz Mehdiyev received an official response.
Several former and current officials who attended were fined ₼400 ($235) each for violating the quarantine.
These included Siyavush Novruzov and his wife Sabina Aliyeva, former Minister of Communications and High Technologies Ali Abbasov, director of the Azerbaijan State Academic Philharmonic Murad Adigozalzade, and his wife Aysel Adigozalzade
Abel Maharramov, the former rector of the Baku State University and a former MP, was also fined.
In a widely-shared video from the wedding in which Maharramov gives a toast, he appears to credit Mehdiyev with progress the country has made. ‘It was you who led the tactical steps in implementing our success’, he said.
Mehdiyev’s son-in-law, Ilham Aliyev, and his ‘matchmaker’, Rovshan Mustafayev were given 15 days of administrative arrest for violating the quarantine.
Later, on Sunday, he wrote on Facebook that Mehdiyev had ‘deceived them’, by telling guests he had received permission to hold the wedding from the President.
‘Nobody is above the law’
After the videos began to be circulated, state-owned and pro-governmental media outlets quickly responded with articles and videos condemning the Mehdiyev wedding.
On Sunday, state-owned newspaper Azerbaycan published an article titled ‘Nobody is above the law’.
The article condemned the holding of weddings by ‘some officials’, calling it a ‘disrespect to society, indifference to the priorities announced by the country's leadership in the fight against coronavirus’.
‘Everyone is equal before the law and no one can escape responsibility for violating the rules of the quarantine regime’, the article concluded.
Mirshahin Aghayev, a prominent anchor on government-leaning channel Real TV made a speech on Sunday condemning Mehdiyev and other members of the ruling party. During the on-air speech, Aghayev praised President Ilham Aliyev for reforming the judiciary.
‘Ilham Aliyev has shown that the law is the law for everyone. He destroyed the foundations of the principles that Ramiz Mehdiyev was accustomed to. The president demonstrated that in the new world, in the innovative world, in the world where new planetary challenges are in force, “Mehdiyevism” has lost its age and maturity’, he said.
Participants of the weddings were also met with condemnation by other high-ranking officials.
Several prominent human rights activists have urged Sabina Aliyeva to apologise and resign as Human rights commissioner.
Anar Mammadli, the head of local rights group the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Centre (EMDS), said the measures taken against the officials were ‘adequate’.
However, Mammadli told OC Media that the official response appeared to have been selective, with only Mehdiyev’s grandaughter’s wedding receiving such a strong reaction.
‘I suppose Mehdiyev was chosen as a target. And here, also, political bias is present. He was chosen as a target by people who are hostile to him, and they started a campaign against him’, he said.
‘I consider that what happened with Mehdiyev is more of a political campaign. The statements of condemnation against him are being managed from one centre. And using these events, they aim to remove Mehdiyev from the political arena. There is a high probability that he may lose his position’, he said.
According to Mammadli, other high-ranking officials participating in the wedding ‘were not close to the ruling family’.
‘They were chosen as a weak group and were criticised’.
‘The authorities are trying, on the one hand, to show that everyone is equal before the law, that quarantine rules are applied to everyone equally, and on the other hand, people who have their own scores to settle with Mehdiyev are trying to denigrate him’, he concluded.
Mammadli also said that in such circumstances, measures should be taken against restaurant owner for hosting the events.