Azerbaijan. At the beginning of the year, there were unrest which showed a resentful dissatisfaction with President Ilham Alijev’s authoritarian regime. In the capital Baku, a protest was held after a young soldier died and according to the family was killed, while the Ministry of Defense claimed a heart attack. The defense minister’s departure was demanded, police dispelled the crowd, violence occurred and many were arrested. Many were sentenced to high fines under a new law on illegal collections, where the fine can amount to up to ten monthly salaries.
In the city of Ismayilli north of Baku, mass protests erupted against the local authorities as thousands of people demanded the departure of the district governor and set fire to his residence. Police beat down the protests with tear gas and water cannons, and two opposition leaders were indicted for mass riots. Concerns spread to the capital, where police beat protesters and arrested many.
According to Countryaah, Parliament approved in February a new law restricting trade in religious books, videotapes, CDs and more to special shops and to materials approved for sale in the country. According to the regime, the law is intended to prevent illegal import of material propagating for religious extremism in Azerbaijan.
The arrest of oppositionists continued, and the police brutally turned down a new demonstration in March. A journalist was accused of corruption and sentenced to nine years in prison for extortion, after his newspaper critically examined the ruler. A government-critical blogger was sentenced to nine years accused of drug possession and an editor to four years accused of hooliganism.
In April, the authorities closed the University of Free Thought (Azad Fikir University) in Baku. The university was supported from the west and aimed to train Azerbaijani youth in democratic values. The US ambassador criticized the closure at the same time as Amnesty International considered that both the US and the EU were closing in on human rights abuses in Azerbaijan.
A new law against slander on the Internet was adopted by Parliament in May. Human rights organizations and the EU feared that the law would be used against the political opposition and stop dissenting opinions online. Under the new law, so-called slander and abuse of the Internet can be punishable by up to three years in prison.
In June, the European Parliament expressed its concern over the repression of politicians, activists and journalists and demanded freedom of the press, opinion and assembly. But when President Aliyev met EU leaders in Brussels, he claimed that there were no political prisoners in Azerbaijan and that the authorities did not censor the Internet. The President of the European Commission said that while Azerbaijan did not live up to all European standards in the field of human rights, it must be taken into account that the country was part of the Soviet Union’s totalitarian regime. He also explained that the country could eventually fill more than a tenth of the EU’s energy needs.
In September, the state-owned energy company SOCAR signed a contract with a number of Western European companies on long-standing supplies from the giant gas field Shah Deniz II in the Caspian Sea. From 2019 the gas will be delivered, in collaboration with Statoil and BP, through the Transadriatic Pipeline (TAP), which is a hardship for the Russian Federation. President Putin had sought to lure the regime away from increased cooperation with the West through visits to Baku and through Russian arms deliveries to Azerbaijan.
Ahead of this fall’s presidential election, the opposition agreed on a joint candidate, playwright and writer Rustam Ibragimbekov (behind the film script as the classic “The White Sun of the Desert” and the Academy Award-winning “Burned by the Sun”). He was named candidate for the National Council by Democratic Forces, a newly formed umbrella group with the country’s major opposition parties. Ibragimbekov, who lived in exile in Moscow, was not approved by the Election Commission, and a new candidate for the opposition became former MP Camil Hasanli. This was the end of the ten candidates who seriously challenged the incumbent president in the election campaign.
The Aliyev regime increased the oppression of opinion opponents ahead of the October presidential election through tightened laws, arrests and harassment. Ilgar Mammadov, the leader of the Republican alternative, was held in custody over the presidential election, and an opposition editor was sentenced to five years in prison on a number of separate charges.
The opposition’s fears of electoral fraud appeared to be confirmed when the electoral authority released a mobile application that would follow the vote. A television station revealed a hidden programming in the app the day before the election, where President Alijev was given a landslide victory. The Election Commission regretted what they called a “misunderstanding”.
In the elections, Aliyev received about 85% of the vote, while Hasanli’s share was stated to be about 5%. The opposition accused the regime of widespread electoral fraud, but almost all observer groups spoke of free and fair elections. The OSCE observers deviated and saw serious shortcomings, including the European Security Organization. many cases with fake ballots. The vote count was disastrous and failed in over half of the polling stations observed.
The opposition gathered in Baku to protest against Aliyev’s election victory. According to the organizers, 15,000 people participated, according to the police one tenth. A number of activists were arrested. Camil Hasanli believed that the people’s right to vote was stolen and power seized, and he demanded that the election result be rejected.
After the election, President Alijev replaced his criticized Defense Minister Safar Abijev. This was replaced by Zakir Hasanov, responsible for the riot police who brutally defeated opposition protests in Baku and riots in other cities.
At the end of the year, 29 people were sentenced to nine to life imprisonment charges for planning terrorist attacks against the Eurovision Song Contest in Baku 2012. Earlier, seven people had been sentenced to prison on similar grounds.