The trial of former economic development minister Farhad Aliyev resulted in a conviction that puts to rest expectations that the onetime influential official would emerge as a popular symbol of opposition to President Ilham Aliyev.
On October 31, after a five-and-a-half-month trial, a Baku criminal court handed the former minister a 10-year sentence, along with the confiscation of his property. His brother, Rafik, once the head of the country's largest private petroleum-services company, Azpetrol International Holdings BV, received a nine-year term for offenses including alleged smuggling and tax evasion. Four former high-ranking ministry officials also were sentenced to jail terms of varying length. Another 13 defendants -- former ministry officials and businessmen -- were set free, but with restrictions on their movements and activities.
Farhad and Rafik Aliyev were arrested in October 2005 on the eve of parliamentary elections deemed a critical test of the opposition's mobilization power. The two were initially charged with attempting to stage a coup. This charge, however, was later dropped. Farhad Aliyev was instead tried on charges of corruption, abuse of power and other "economic crimes." An earlier allegation that the ex-minister had ordered the 2005 murder of well-known opposition journalist Elmar Huseynov was not considered.
In his last statement at the trial on October 4, Aliyev termed the charges "absurd," asserting that "[a]ll I did was for the sake of the people, and I do not regret anything."
Aliyev's legal team plans to appeal the sentence, and to lodge a complaint about the trial's conduct with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Isakhan Ashurov, one of Aliyev's attorneys, asserted that the judge denied defense requests for "more than 30" individuals to testify at the trial. Among those requested were Prime Minister Artur Rasizade, Economic Development Minister Heydar Babayev, Emergency Situations Minister Kamaladdin Heydarov, State Property Committee Chairman Kerem Hasanov and General Prosecutor Zakir Garalov Right. "[T]he trial was not objective and the sentence is not fair," Ashurov said.
The ability of journalists to cover the trial was restricted, with representatives of independent or opposition media outlets often denied access. Similarly, defense attorneys complained that they were not permitted to fully review the evidence against their clients. One attorney for Farhad Aliyev was not allowed to attend the trial, while another one was removed by the Azerbaijani Bar Association for alleged violation of procedural rules.
The ex-minister has also alleged that he had come under psychological pressure and was denied regular access to his attorneys. In mid-May, he claimed that he had been asked to pay $100 million for a presidential pardon in exchange for testifying that he had financed exiled opposition leader Rasul Guliyev, head of the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, who was also charged with plotting a coup.
The government has denied that it made such a demand, and has dismissed allegations of judicial misconduct.
Regardless of whether the charges against him were politically motivated, Farhad Aliyev's conduct during the trial appears to have damaged his political image. Elhan Shahinoglu, an analyst at the Baku-based Atlas political research center, said the trial showed Farhad Aliyev to be a "weak and inexperienced" politician. "When he was a minister, it was much easier for him to establish an image as a reformer and fighter against corruption. He had media support, financial resources and so on," Shahinoglu said.
Aliyev repeatedly has insisted that his efforts to improve social and economic conditions angered powerful interests within the government, leading to the charges against him. "My actions against monopolies, unemployment and poverty in Azerbaijan touched the personal interests of several high-level officials and they decided to take vengeance on me," Aliyev said on June 16, news agencies reported.
In his last statement, on October 4, Aliyev claimed that more that $1 billion was stolen during the implementation of certain large investment projects. Authorities have not reacted to the accusation.
Rovshan Ismayilov is a freelance journalist based in Baku.