Spy Row Shakes Azerbaijan

Arrest of opposition activist on spying charge heats pre-election passions in Baku.

Spy Row Shakes Azerbaijan

Arrest of opposition activist on spying charge heats pre-election passions in Baku.

Wednesday, 10 August, 2005

An Azerbaijani opposition youth leader has been accused of collaborating with the Armenian secret services, in what his supporters say is an attempt to intimidate the opposition ahead of November’s parliamentary elections.


On August 3, Ruslan Bashirli, leader of the youth movement Yeni Fikir (New Thought), which is affiliated with the opposition Popular Front of Azerbaijan party, was charged with “violent seizure of power” for allegedly receiving the sum of 2,000 US dollars from an Armenian in Tbilisi to fund revolutionary activities. If found guilty, he could face life imprisonment.


The prosecutor’s office says that on July 28-29, Bashirli met three men – two of whom have recognisably Armenian names – who represented what it calls “democratic forces in Georgia”. All three men, prosecutors allege, were working for the Armenian secret service. And Bashirli went to the meeting in Tbilisi “on the orders of the leader of the opposition Popular Front of Azerbaijan Party Ali Kerimli”.


Bashirli, they said, was working on the instructions of the United States’ National Democratic Institute to foment revolution in Azerbaijan. His contacts in Tbilisi offered to help destabilise the ceasefire line between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces around Nagorny Karabakh, and to provide him with compromising material on the Azerbaijani president’s family.


A videotape, apparently taken by a hidden camera and showing Bashirli receiving money from his dinner partners, has been shown on all of Azerbaijan’s television channels.


“The law enforcement agencies had information earlier that these forces were collaborating with the secret services of Armenia,” Azerbaijan’s prosecutor general Zakir Garalov told Lider television. “Now the Azerbaijani public has seen the true face of the opposition and is fully convinced that in order to take power, it is prepared to collaborate with anyone – including the secret services of Armenia, which has occupied 20 per cent of the lands of our republic.”


Bashirli’s lawyer Elchin Gambarov says that his client vehemently denies all the charges, that he met Georgians, not Armenians in Tbilisi, and that the alleged film is a mock-up.


Gambarov said he had visited Bashirli in detention on August 8, and his client had told him that investigators were trying to make him give evidence against the Popular Front leadership.


“They promised to free Bashirli in 24 hours if he confessed to having taken orders from Ali Kerimli,” said the lawyer. “This is a politically motivated arrest and Bashirli is a political prisoner.”


“Ruslan has been called an enemy of the people without trial or investigation - this dirty campaign is reminiscent of 1937.”


Bashirli’s family home has been pelted with stones and his mother taken to hospital with heart problems. Popular Front headquarters in Baku was also repeatedly besieged by pro-government supporters throwing eggs, stones and bottles.


Kerimli has said the arrest of Bashirli is part of a campaign by the government to blacken the reputation of himself and his party.


“The Yeni Fikir organisation is not legally linked to the Popular Front of Azerbaijan; it is one of several non-government organisations which is supporting our party in the parliamentary elections,” Kerimli told IWPR in an interview. “This organisation has close relations with liberal youth groups in Europe and Bashirli participated in a conference in Tbilisi on the invitation of a Georgian NGO, Democracy Without Borders.”


Kerimli said the affair was “a pre-planned operation by the Azerbaijani secret services to discredit the opposition”.


He added that he had information that the authorities were planning to provoke an outbreak of violence by encouraging their supporters to attack his party headquarters.


The November elections are being keenly watched both inside and outside Azerbaijan. They will be the first test of the popular mood in the country since the controversial elections of October 2003, when Ilham Aliev was declared the winner over opposition leader Isa Gambar.


Since then, the peaceful revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan have encouraged youth movements and opposition parties to mobilise and seek outside support.


Said Nuriev, deputy leader of Yeni Fikir, said the authorities in Azerbaijan “fear there will be a surge in activity by young people ahead of the parliamentary elections, and they are worried that the Ukrainian and Georgian events could be repeated in Azerbaijan. So they want to discredit and destroy us, but they won’t succeed in doing that.”


The Baku office of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe has condemned the way in which the authorities detained Bashirli. On August 9, Maurizio Pavesi, head of the office, said, “It is unacceptable when groups of people want to impose their own justice.” He pointed out that Bashirli was still under investigation and had not yet been found guilty of anything.


In Armenia, the authorities have strongly denied trying to offer covert support to the Azerbaijani opposition.


“Azerbaijan shouldn’t try to solve its internal political problems by using methods that were used in the USSR in the Twenties and Thirties and have long been forgotten,” said Gorik Hakobian, director of Armenia’s National Security Service.


Artashes Geghamian, an Armenian opposition leader, believes the story is far-fetched because his country does not have the resources for foreign espionage. “The National Security Service of Armenia is at best capable of tapping the phone lines of Armenian opposition activists and engaging in other intrigues. I don’t think it’s capable of recruiting a real spy or attracting serious people to work for Armenia.”


Rufat Abbasov works for Reuters news agency and Gulnaz Gulieva is a freelance journalist in Baku. Seda Muradian of IWPR in Yerevan contributed to this article.


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