Azerbaijan: still waiting for Rasul Guliyev

BAKU (Eurasianet.org)–Azeri opposition leader Rasul Guliyev–chairman of the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan–was detained by Ukrainian law enforcement authorities on October 17 while trying to return to Baku after nine years in exile.

The former parliamentary speaker was arrested in the Simferopol Airport–in the capital of Crimea–Ukraine–en route to Baku from London to take part in the November 6 parliamentary elections. Guliyev was stopped at the airport at the request of Azeri authorities and is now being questioned by an Interpol representative in Crimea. A decision on the outcome of Guliyev’s case is still pending–according to statemen’s made by the Simferopol regional police department to news agencies.

Guliyev–who was expected to arrive in Baku around 4pm local time–had chartered a flight earlier in the day from London to Simferopol where he negotiated with Azeri authorities to be allowed to fly on to Baku. According to Sabir Ilyasov–vice-president of Azerbaijan Airlines–the state-owned company that runs Baku’s airport–the company received a landing request from a chartered plane carrying five passengers–including Guliyev. "We allowed them to land in Baku’s airport–but he [Guliyev] refused to do it," Ilyasov said. Guliyev–however–has stated that the plane was denied permission to land.

Members of Guliyev’s Democratic Party of Azerbaijan–a member of the tripartite Azadlig bloc–the largest opposition election alliance–have said that the authorities fear Guliyev’s return–and have argued that a large number of senior Azerbaijani officials support the return of the opposition leader from exile.

Speaking in a paid advertising slot on the Azerbaijani TV station ANS on October 12–DPA member Qurban Mammadov vowed to publicize the names of these officials after Guliyev’s return to Azerbaijan. "Many people will reveal their positions then," Mammadov said. "Thousands of state officials–including those with a high rank–have become members of the national committee for protecting the rights of Rasul Guliyev."

General Prosecutor Zakir Garalov has repeatedly emphasized that the state intends to pursue its prosecution of Guliyev–wanted since 2000 on charges of embezzling more than $100 million in state funds while head of Azerbaijan’s Azarneftyag oil refinery. Guliyev–who has been placed on an international wanted list–has denied the accusation and called it a political fabrication. Guliyev fled to the United States in 1996 after a falling out with then President Heidar Aliyev–father of Azerbaijan’s current leader–President Ilham Aliyev.

It is expected that representatives of the interior ministry will leave for Ukraine within a few days to negotiate Guliyev’s extradition to Azerbaijan–ministry spokesman Sadiq Gezalov said. Although a candidate for parliament–Guliyev has been denied immunity from prosecution.

Nonetheless–it is unclear how Guliyev’s return to Azerbaijan–even under extradition–will play with members of the opposition. Guliyev’s supporters had been urging followers to welcome him at Baku International Airport on October 17. On October 16–Interior Minister Ramil Usubov cautioned journalists and diplomats to stay away–warning of likely clashes with police forces.

As of 10AM on Monday morning–automobile traffic on the highway leading to the airport was strictly restricted. Scores of Interior Ministry troops–armed with automatic rifles and wearing helmets–joined traffic police at a beefed-up checkpoint on the road between the airport and Baku.

Usubov explained the heavy troop deployment by saying that authorities had received information that the so-called "radical" opposition intended to attack the airport and the surrounding areas in a two-pronged attack–under pretext of welcoming Guliyev. In a broadcast on the pro-government Lider TV–police showed several combat grenades and a pistol found on the roadside approaching Baku’s airport. Police were also deployed within Baku–around the parliament building–the Soviet-era government house and Freedom Square–an occasional meeting place for unauthorized opposition demonstrations.

Among those turned away from the airport was US Ambassador Reno Harnish–Azerbaijani Public TV reported. "All private and embassy cars have been banned from entering the airport territory since the participation in such an action runs counter to diplomatic activities," read an interior ministry statement in reference to the refusal to allow Harnish access to the airport. "Only people with tickets for certain flights and staff of the airport are allowed to enter the airport in special buses." In preparation for Guliyev’s arrival–law enforcement agencies also arrested 26 individuals who officials believed likely to cause "provocation" in connection with the opposition leader’s return. Former Finance Minister Fikrat Yusifov–and the former head of the Ganja city police department [and the incumbent DPA deputy chairman]–Natiq Effendiyev–were among them. In an interview with the privately owned pro-government Lider TV–Interior Minister Usubov claimed that those arrested "bribed some people and . . . have drawn up plans to use force against the police. This plan exists."

The minister claimed that 100,000 euros–$60,000–a pistol–and additional funds "for Guliyev’s return" were found in Yusifov’s apartment.

Turan news agency reported that Democratic Party political council member Gurban Mamedov and Guliyev’s nephew–Etibar Guliyev–have been detained by police.

By the evening of October 17–more than 1,000 activists from the opposition Azadlig bloc had been arrested–according to Democratic Party of Azerbaijan headquarters. The interior ministry–however–puts the number of detainees at only 10-35 people.

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