By Mina Muradova (06/10/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)

An internal investigation in Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry has erupted in a scandal over the comments of a diplomat who publicly criticized the government after a deadly fire in a Baku apartment-building.

In early June, President Ilham Aliyev recalled Azerbaijan’s Ambassador to Ukraine and Permanent Representative to the GUAM Organization for Democracy and Economic Development Eynulla Madatli. Although no official explanation was given, local media reported that it was connected to his “like” of a status posted by another diplomat, Arif Mammadov, on his personal Facebook page.

Mammadov, Head of the Permanent Observer Mission of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to the European Union, sharply criticized Azerbaijani officials over the May fire that killed 15 people in the Binagadi district of Baku. “There is no nation that would stand that shame and injustice,” Mammadov wrote on his Facebook page in May. “Officials earn millions on our people’s sufferings, and if they are not afraid of our people’s anger, then they must be scared of God's anger!” Four of the 16 residents who died were young children. Fifty others were injured, and most were later said to be in serious condition.

The government swiftly set up a commission to investigate the tragedy, and President Aliyev chaired its first meeting on May 20. Deputy Prime Minister Abid Sharifov, appointed to head the commission, said residents of the apartment block would be given temporary accommodation and 20,000 manats (US$ 19,500) per household in compensation, while families who lost members would get another 15,000 manats each. Sharifov indicated that building and safety standards had not been observed, and Prosecutor General Zakir Qaralov pointed to the exterior plastic cladding, saying it had not been certified.

“The preliminary theory is that the facing materials used in the repairs were of poor quality and non-fireproof. I have repeatedly raised the issue of repairs carried out in Baku: first of all, repairs must be carried out with good quality and hazardous substances must not be used, Aliyev said. “Representatives of relevant government agencies have repeatedly told me that all the materials used are of good quality and fireproof. But the incident has shown that this information is false.” These materials have been used in Baku for many years, but no previous incidents have occurred. The minister for emergencies, Kamaleddin Heydarov, clarified that a certificate submitted to the state anti-fire service had confirmed that this material is resistant to fire.

The city’s mass rebuilding has been spurred by the oil and gas boom of recent years. Heydarov noted that over 260 building exteriors are covered with similar material and that all of them were being controlled. The cladding, made of a plastic called Styrofoam, was only put on recently, apparently to decorate Baku and other cities ahead of the European Games, which Azerbaijan is hosting on June 12-28.

The horrific event sparked extensive expressions of grief on social media, fueled by amateur videos of the fire and photos of victims, including one widely-circulated shot of two-year-old Farah Maharramova celebrating her birthday days before her death.

In some Baku districts, city authorities ordered workers to remove the panels from aging buildings. Elsewhere, private residents used hammers and sometimes their fingers to chop off chunks of the material surrounding their apartment windows and ground-floor walls. A notice on Facebook invited 24,000 Azerbaijanis to participate in removing the new facades: “It’s stupid to put up with this in silence. We have to act … We have dismantle this idiotic facing ... Life is worth fighting for.”

Mammadov’s post was considered a call to “revolution” against the government. Some pro-governmental media outlets termed it a “mutiny” within Azerbaijan’s diplomatic corps. In a June 3 article, Haqqin.az described Mammadov as a “traitor” and “a new opposition activist.”

Hikmat Hajiyev, a spokesperson for Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry said, “We were informed about it. The Foreign Ministry will thoroughly investigate the issue in accordance with its internal procedures. Such behavior from the diplomat, if confirmed, would be inappropriate and far from ethic norms. It would be irresponsible and unprofessional behavior that is unacceptable.” As a result of the internal investigation, a number of the Foreign Ministry’s employees have been dismissed.

In response, Mammadov commented on his Facebook page on June 7 that the government had started “the hunt against the best diplomats of the country … The repression order came from the repressive factory of the country. It is beyond understanding that the country’s best diplomats are fired for ‘liking’ on Facebook my words expressing condolences to the families of those killed during the tragic fire in Baku … Diplomats are forced to write derogatory statements. I would say that the actions taking place now can only be called insanity of the power.”

Mammadov refused an offer from Belgium’s Foreign Ministry to protect him and his family. “Several media have reported that I am looking for political asylum in Norway. No way! My determination to fight obscurantism and injustice against my great nation is limitless,” Mammadov stated.

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