Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev is in an uncharacteristically charitable mood: on September 11, he pardoned imprisoned travel blogger Alexander Lapshin and ordered the pre-trial release of Mehman Aliyev, editor-in-chief of Azerbaijan’s last independent newswire.
For a country with essentially no free media, these might appear positive steps. But, at least in Mehman Aliyev’s case, the real reason for Aliyev’s bout of leniency could lie further afield – the September 7 inclusion of language in a foreign appropriations bill before the US Senate that would restrict Azerbaijani officials involved with the media executive’s arrest from entering the US.
Recent revelations of Azerbaijan’s alleged massive money-laundering and influence-buying in Europe provide another reason for Aliyev to go into damage-control mode. Baku already has tried the bad-cop role in response to these accusations; now, apparently, it’s time for the good cop.
Enter Mehman Aliyev. To Azerbaijan watchers, the Turan news agency chief’s detention was a textbook case of how Azerbaijan relates to critical media. Observers described the tax-evasion charges against Aliyev as an attempt to shutter Turan, leaving Azerbaijan without any independent media.
After President Aliyev called for letting the agency’s director spend his pre-trial detention at home, a Baku court quickly complied.
To explain the decision, the government, of course, stuck to the official line. Long-time senior presidential aide Ali Hasanov reminded the world that, as he put it, per President Aliyev’s instructions, “media employees have not been imprisoned for their professional activities in Azerbaijan since 2009.”
That reasoning apparently also applies to Lapshin, sentenced in July to three years in jail for trespassing Azerbaijan’s borders. The embattled blogger, who holds Israeli, Russian and Ukrainian citizenships, attempted suicide in prison as he was waiting to be handed over to Israel, officials claimed. “Thanks to the prison guards’ vigilance, the suicide attempt was prevented and necessary medical care was provided to him,” said Hasanov.
The blogger’s arrest had caused friction between Azerbaijan and his many countries of citizenship. Lapshin’s detention was also an unprecedented instance of Azerbaijan securing the arrest of a foreign citizen in another country (Belarus), getting him extradited to Baku and then convicting him for allegedly entering breakaway Nagorno Karabakh without Baku’s authorization and expressing support for Karabakh’s separatist government.
Lapshin’s release might have spared Baku an international incident, but it won’t reduce the scrutiny of his government. The jails remain packed with political prisoners, activists and journalists charge.
On September 11, investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who spent about a year-and a half in prison and is now barred from leaving the country, cautioned the international community against embracing Aliyev’s sudden display of tolerance.
“[P]lease be careful with welcome messages. Demand lifting of all charges against Mehman Aliyev . . . and release of all political prisoners,” she wrote on her Facebook page.*
The Aliyev and Lapshin cases are not the first time Azerbaijan’s leader has switched to the good-cop role. Last year, he ordered the mass pardon of 137 prisoners, including many of his critics.
Reflecting that pattern, a group of alleged Islamic rebels was also released on September 11 ahead of their jail term.
Azerbaijani journalist Leyla Mustafayeva, wife of the controversially detained journalist Afgan Mukhtarli, charges, though, that Aliyev’s government uses such prisoners as bargaining chips with Western governments, releasing them when international criticism grows too loud.
If Aliyev's power play does work in the arrest-criticism-release cycle, a few more prison doors may open soon.
*Khadija Ismayilova formerly worked as a freelance reporter for EurasiaNet.org.