Azerbaijan's measure to silence critics: The case of Gubad Ibadoglu

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

Gubad Ibadoghlu, 52, is a well-known academic, economist, and politician from Azerbaijan who has recently been arrested under dubious corruption charges — the latest in a string of arrests targeting journalists, politicians, and activists in the state. In July 2023, during his visit to Azerbaijan, the academic was placed in custody, where he remains at the time of writing this story, despite worrying reports of his deteriorating health and international demands for his immediate release. Ibadoghlu has been charged with the production, acquisition, or sale of counterfeit money by an organized group. If convicted, he is facing up to twelve years in prison. Ibadoglu's arrest follows a usual pattern of crackdown observed in Azerbaijan over the last two decades. Last year was no exception.

Ibadoghlu is the founder and chair of the opposition Azerbaijan Democracy and Prosperity Party (ADR). Based in London, he was a senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics (LSE). His work focuses on “petro-capitalism,” analyzing how oil and gas revenues have fueled corruption and authoritarianism in post-Soviet states. In one of his recent lengthy articles, Ibadoglu argues that, based on empirical findings, “the oil-hinders-democracy hypothesis is valid for the oil-rich nations of the post-Soviet space.” The paper focused on several resource-rich countries, including Azerbaijan.

The arrest

On July 23, Ibadoglu was in his car alongside his wife, Irada Bayramova, an accountant by profession. They were heading to Sumgayit, a city 36 kilometers outside of the capital Baku. The first stop was a grocery store, after which the couple planned to attend ADR's meeting for youth in the city of Sumgayit.

Little did the couple know, they were being followed, and this would be the last day they would be together. According to Ibadoglu's daughter, Zhala Bayramova, her parents were chased down by at least four cars. At some point, the cars surrounded the couple's vehicle. Irada Bayramova recalled there were at least twenty plain-clothed men who, without introducing themselves, dragged the couple out of their car and shoved them into separate vehicles. “My mom thought they were mafia, and that they were being kidnapped to sell her as a sex worker, and my dad for his organs,” explained Zhala Bayramova in an interview with Global Voices.

But it was not the mafia after all. The couple was taken to the Main Department for the Fight against Organized Crime — a unit under the Ministry of the Interior notorious for torture allegations.

While Mrs. Bayramova was let go several hours after being brought to the crime unit, with visible bruises over her body, Ibadoglu was kept until the next day, when a court in Baku sentenced the politician to four months in pretrial detention on what international rights watchdogs called bogus charges. On February 15, the court in Baku extended his detention by another three months.

The charges

Initially, the charges leveled against Ibadoghlu were that he had participated in counterfeit operations. However, hours after his detention, the charges were increased, meaning the maximum sentence in case of conviction rose from seven years to twelve. The original charges leveled against the academic were based on investigators’ claim of allegedly finding USD 40,000 in the office of the Economic Research Center — a non-governmental organization founded by Ibadoghlu. The organization was closed down in 2014 following one of the worst crackdowns targeting civil society in Azerbaijan. Due to increasing state pressure, Ibadoghlu himself left Azerbaijan in 2017. According to his family, he only returned briefly in 2021.

Before returning to Azerbaijan, Ibadoghlu received assurances from a well-known civil society member in Baku that authorities would not resort to any form of persecution if he considered coming back to Azerbaijan. This proved misguided.

Writing on the social media platform Meta, Ibadoglu's daughter, Zhala Bayramova, said the police planted money in her father's office the night before the arrest after breaking in and changing the locks of the office.

Hours after Ibadoghlu was brought to the Grave Crimes Unit, the Ministry of the Interior released a statement saying the academic was detained as part of an operation investigating individuals related to the Fethullah Gulen movement known as FETÖ (Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organisation), which is designated as a terrorist organization in Turkey over its involvement in the attempted military coup in 2016.

Fethullah Gülen, a Pennsylvania-based Turkish cleric, was Erdoğan's ally before he became his enemy. After AKP's first landslide victory in 2002, the pair worked together to reshape Turkish politics, which had been long dominated by a secular military elite. But as Erdoğan looked to extend his power, Gülen's influence inside the government became a hindrance. Since 2016, Turkey's government has deemed the movement a terrorist group responsible for engineering the coup. The coup attempt unleashed a wave of purges inside Turkey. From the military and academia to the business world and media, thousands were rounded up and arrested in Turkey. These arrests continue to this day.

The crackdown on Gülen linked groups has also reached Azerbaijan, where, following the failed military coup, the government vowed to track down all alleged supporters of the movement in the country. When Erdoğan and Gülen had their first fallout in 2014, Azerbaijan swiftly shut down 13 education centers and 11 high schools affiliated with the group. Zaman Azerbaijan, the newspaper linked to Gülen, was also shut down. When Azerbaijan News Service (ANS) aired an interview with the cleric, it too was shut down. The government also transferred the management of Qafqaz [Caucasus] University, Azerbaijan’s first private university founded by the supporters of Gülen, to the State Oil Company (SOCAR). At least fifty faculty members at the university were fired at the time.

According to Ibadoghlu's lawyer, Zibeyde Sadighova, the allegations linking the academic to FETÖ were based on a testimony of another man detained during the so-called operation. The man, Anar Aliyev, claimed the academic paid him, but Sadighova reiterated that Ibadoghlu had never even heard of Aliyev, let alone met him to engage in some kind of financial transaction.

The cases of the four men who were arrested over their involvement with FETÖ are being investigated separately from Ibadoghlu, according to his daughter. In an interview with Global Voices, she reasoned that the link to FETÖ may be based on a fund her father set up in 2023.

The fund, called Azerbaijan Youth Education Foundation, was launched in June 2023 in the UK. It is led by politician Jamil Hasanli and defected diplomat Arif Mammadov. Both have been in the crosshairs of the regime over the years.

In a post on Meta, Ibadoglu shared that the foundation would sponsor Azerbaijani students wanting to study abroad with donations as well as money that was confiscated from Azerbaijani elites in corruption and money laundering cases.

Azerbaijan has long suffered from a brain drain as a result of a lack of quality education or employment opportunities. And rather than fixing the outstanding challenges, the authorities have been quick to crack down against those who are. A state-backed smear campaign was launched against the foundation and its founder, accusing him of being a grant eater and serving the interests of the West. Now, Ibadoghlu is among the many activists who have been unlawfully silenced. Meanwhile, his family is worried about the academic's ailing health. They fear he doesn't have much time left to live, let alone see the first group of Azerbaijani students receiving funding through the foundation to study abroad.

In September, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for his immediate release. Then, on February 15, 2023, the day of Ibadoghlu's pre-trial detention was extended by another three months, the US Congress put forward a resolution condemning the treatment of the academic by the authorities and urging for his immediate release. It remains to be seen how these measures may impact Ibadoghlu's detainment.

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