Ilgar Mammadov, chairman of the REAL (Republican Alternative) movement, and Tofig Yaqublu, deputy chairman of the Musavat Party, were arrested and charged on February 4 and could face up to three years in jail if found guilty. Their supporters maintain the arrests were politically motivated. On February 6, the U.S. Embassy in Baku issued a statement urging the government of Azerbaijan “to observe due process of the law and ensure transparency and fairness of the judicial process..., and to respect citizens’ freedom of assembly and expression.”
Dozens of people have been detained after the unrest in the town of Ismayilli, 200 kilometers northwest of Baku. Mammadov and Yaqublu visited the town the day after hundreds of local residents staged protests on January 23, demanding the resignation of the district governor and setting his residence, two cars, and to a local hotel, associated with the governor, on fire. The district governor is Nizami Alakbarov, the brother of Azerbaijan’s Labor and Social Security Minister Fizuli Alakbarov. Witnesses said hundreds of protesters surrounded the governor’s residence on Thursday, chanting “Resignation! Resignation!”
Mammadov and Yaqublu visited Ismayilli to see what was going on, and returned on the same day. They spent no more than one hour in the town, where they spoke with local people and learned about the causes of the unrest.
On January 24, Mammadov posted on his Facebook page: “… we have thoroughly examined the situation in Ismayilli and now we are going back to Baku … People are angry. They are preparing for further clashes and bought fuel. There are angry and determined people among local residents ... It is already a situation where unrest has turned into a crisis and the government has to find compromises.” Like Mammadov, many observers consider the unrest to be a consequence of discontent with the local governor’s abuse of power and alleged growing corruption, in addition to the lack of employment and prospects in regions.
Order was restored in the town after two days when police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the demonstrators. The violent clash between police and Ismayilli residents started after a traffic incident. According to media reports, Vugar Alakbarov – the son of the aforementioned Minister – and the nephew of the Ismayilli governor were allegedly in a car that collided with a local taxi outside the Chirag Hotel in the evening of January 23. Witnesses say Alakbarov insulted the taxi driver and other locals. Rioters then apparently targeted property belonging to the Alakbarovs.
Later, Azerbaijan’s Interior Ministry issued a statement denying that the minister’s son had been involved in the incident, stating he was not in the region on that day. An Interior Ministry statement asserted that the unrest was provoked by the hotel manager, Emil Shamsaddinov, and an associate identified as Elmaddin Mammadov. According to the ministry statement, “Both have been detained by police.”
The district governor denied that the hotel belonged to his family or circle, and presented registration documents instead identifying VAFI Tourism as the owner. However, on January 28, Ilgar Mammadov posted screenshots of Alakbarov’s Facebook page promoting the Chirag motel. The page was later deleted from the account. However, Radio Azadliq reported that Alakbarov is the director of Improtex Real Estate, LLC, which has a contract with Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide to build a Sheraton hotel in Ismayilli. According to the official company registry, he is the official owner of two other companies with similar names: VAFI Construction and VAFI REGION.
The executive secretary of REAL and economist Natig Jafarli said that “the regions [in Azerbaijan] are divided between the oligarch-ministers and their relatives or friends are appointed as governors; they monopolize the local economy and enjoy all the opportunities.”
Jafarli, who was accompanying Mammadov in Ismayilli, stated that the detention of the two opposition leaders is “political order” and that the charges against them are absurd. At a press conference on February 5, he announced that “Starting from today REAL is nominating its leader Ilgar Mammadov for the 2013 Presidential elections.”
Since five years, Mammadov is director of the Council of Europe’s School of Political Studies in Azerbaijan. He is also co-chairing the Republicans Alternative Movement (REAL) established in December 2008. REAL’s platform is based on the agenda of Republicanism as opposed to Azerbaijan’s current regime. In addition, he is a member of the advisory boards of the Revenue Watch Institute and the U.S. German Marshal Fund’s Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation. Mammadov was previously affiliated with the National Independence Party where he served as Deputy Chairman between 1998 and 2003.
The Directors of the Council of Europe’s Schools of Political Studies have condemned the arrest and imprisonment of their Azerbaijani colleague and call for his immediate release. In a statement issued on February 7, they urged Council of Europe and the European Union “to demand the immediate and unconditional release” of Mammadov whose only “crime” is to defend and promote the values and ideals of genuine democracy which underpin the European project.
“Starting from today, REAL’s board members, ordinary members and our supporters have to work hard…, and direct all our forces to Ilgar Mammadov’s campaign as a candidate in the presidential elections, as well as his prompt release, along with Yaqublu and other political detainees,” – posted Jafarli on his Facebook page on February 5.