News of Azerbaijan’s arrest of prominent election monitor Anar Mammadli is sweeping the world, with demands for his immediate release being issued by several international human rights organisations.Baku police arrested Mammadli, who is chairman of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Centre (EMDS), a leading independent election monitoring group in Azerbaijan that has been observing elections in the country for more than 12 years, on 16 December. Mammadli is being charged with tax evasion, illegal entrepreneurship, and abuse of office. However, critics of the Azeri government are crying foul, saying that the arrest is the state’s retribution for EMDS election monitoring report, which said that the 9 October elections were neither free, nor fair…
Giorgi Gogia, senior South Caucasus researcher at Human Rights Watch, explains:
“The arrest of a prominent election monitor is the latest strike in the government’s campaign against independent activists. By arresting Mammadli, the authorities are sending a message that they are more interested in silencing an inconvenient messenger than investigating credible reports of election fraud.”
— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) December 19, 2013
Eastbook.eu spoke to Paolo Sorbello, a researcher and journalist based in Almaty, Kazakhstan, who spoke about his last conversation with Mammadli, just before his arrest, his reaction to the latest crackdown, and some of the other factors which could be behind Mammadli’s detainment:
“The arrest of Anar Mammadli came to a great surprise among the followers of electoral processes in Azerbaijan. He will serve a 3-month precautionary jail time on charges of tax evasion and falsification of vote results. The first accusation might seem odd, given that he was the head of an NGO funded by US National Democratic Institute and other western organizations. The second part is even ironic, because his NGO, the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center is precisely devoted to denouncing vote frauds.
The surprise, however, comes with the timing. ‘Generally’ he explained, ‘our Center is targeted before the elections take place: in 2008, for example, the government revoked our license and this hindered our ability to work effectively’. This time around, they waited until 2 months after the landslide re-election of Aliyev to arrest him. The Center’s reports on the presidential elections are all out and have a tone similar to the OSCE mission final assessment.
He has been using legal outlets to criticize the way that the government deals with opposition and strangles political liberties.
Personally, I link it to the final investment decision on the second phase of the Shah Deniz offshore gas field. A score of western companies and government officials attended the ceremony on Dec. 17, and while the gas trumpets were blowing, they took Mammadli into custody. Also, the ink on the protocols signed at the Vilnius summits has dried and this event is unlikely to undermine the rapprochement between Azerbaijan and the EU.
Just a few days before, Global Witness, a watchdog on corruption in the extractive industry, published a harsh report on the murky activities of SOCAR and the companies linked to it. The national oil company responded immediately to the criticism, but left a few issues unanswered.
When I interviewed him in early October, he warned me that he didn’t have much time. After more than one hour and 10 pages of notes, I had gathered his opinion not only on the upcoming elections and the crackdown on opposition leaders, but also on the waning popular participation to the political process and the lack of satisfaction among the younger generation, shaped by the Arab Spring and the activity in the social media, the only outlet for freedom of expression.”
— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) December 19, 2013
Meanwhile, international watch dogs are calling on Europe to tackle this subject with Azerbaijan, and press for the release of unlawfully imprisoned journalists and critics of the regime. Some argue, however, that in order to do that, the EU must tackle corruption of its own. Giorgi Lomsadze of Eurasianet, explains:
“The December 16 arrest of well-known Azerbaijani democratization watcher Anar Mammadli has become the latest move in what critics call the Azerbaijani government’s ongoing war against civil activism and political dissent. But where Western democracy activists see the government trampling of civil society, some claim that many Western officials see only gas and oil.
Human Rights Watch has called on British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who visited Baku on December 17 to initial a deal for the construction of the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, to raise the issue of these arrests with the Azerbaijani authorities. The EU’s energy commissioner, Günther Oettinger, also was in town for the signing.
A press release from the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office focused only on the gas talks, though added that Foreign Secretary Hague would “discuss a range of issues” with President Aliyev and Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov. The EU has not yet commented on Mammadli’s arrest.”
The EU has come under much fire in the last year for its apparent “walking on eggshells” approach to Azerbaijan, which many have slammed as condoning the nation’s violation of human rights.
— Katy Pearce (@katypearce) December 20, 2013
— Civil Society Forum (@eapcsf) December 20, 2013