A wave of arrests in Azerbaijan that initially targeted independent journalists has now come for one of the country's most prominent opposition activists.
On December 14, Tofig Yagublu was arrested and his house was searched by the police. A criminal case was launched against him on charges of "fraud causing a large amount of damage" and "forgery, illegal preparation or sale of official documents, state awards, seals, stamps, blanks," according to his lawyer Agil Layic.
"Tofig rejects any and all accusations and links his arrest to his political activity," Layic told Meydan TV. The attorney added that "it sounds like" the charges pertain to the allegations dating to 2019 that the Musavat Party, of which Yagublu is a member, charged would-be migrants in exchange for evidence that would boost asylum claims in Germany.
Yagublu's daughter, Nigar Hazi, said that the 5,000 euros, 2,500 manats, and an unspecified amount of U.S. dollars the police claimed to have found in the family's home had been planted. Yagublu's wife, Maya Yagublu, said she was "shocked to see that much cash. Yesterday I borrowed 50 manats from a neighbor to go to a doctor."
Yagublu, who in addition to Musavat is also a member of the umbrella opposition group National Council of Democratic Forces, has done several stints in prison. In 2013, he was arrested and accused of organizing unrest in the city of Ismayilli and freed in 2016. In 2020, he was sentenced to a 4-year prison term on hooliganism charges. He was soon granted conditional release, however, after he started a hunger strike that attracted broad public sympathy.
In 2021, after attending a rally in support of an imprisoned fellow activist, Yagublu emerged from police custody with his eyes swollen shut. Most recently, earlier this year he was arrested on administrative charges after attending a rally in support of a different imprisoned activist. He started a hunger strike on the 13th day of his confinement and maintained it until the end of his one-month term.
Yagublu is the latest to be arrested in the current wave of detentions in Azerbaijan. The binge started as the country's relations with the U.S. deteriorated and pro-government media attacked political activists and independent media as "U.S. spies." Though the tensions with the U.S. later subsided after a top State Department official visited the country, the hunt continues unabated.
Analysts in the country link the arrests to President Ilham Aliyev's recent decision to hold early presidential elections on February 7.
"Part of the rationale behind severing relations with the U.S. and then normalizing them was to moderate the Western reactions to the escalated domestic repressions. It is quite common for authoritarian leaders to crack down on independent societal groups and media in the pre-election period," political analyst Najmin Kamilsoy told Eurasianet.
"We saw that in 2013, when the authorities crushed mobilized youth groups, social media activists and NGOs before the vote. As a result, the 2018 elections were held in complete silence. But since then, independent media platforms continued to grow, so targeting them now is more of a pre-election preparation, rather than a projection of disturbed relations with the West. The end goal is forging a very centralized political system with no space for the free flow of information and alternative discourses - to create a closed system of governance similar to models like Turkmenistan's."
And it looks like Yagublu isn't going to be the last to be arrested before the elections. Layic, his lawyer, told reporters that one more person is identified as a suspect in the case, but he can't disclose their name at this time.
Anar Mammadli, the head of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Education Center, thinks that the fact that arrests started before the public announcement of the snap election means that it was all planned in advance. "I think the scope of the arrests is very big. It shows that they're taking preventive steps as a means to prepare for the election. More arrests will continue to cultivate fear among the media and political landscape," he told Eurasianet.
"The recent trend of detaining journalists is deeply troubling," the U.S. embassy in Baku's press attache, Vanessa Schulz Zenji, told Eurasianet. "We continue to urge the Azerbaijani government to respect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all, including those exercising freedom of expression."