(Berlin, July 25, 2023) – Azerbaijani authorities have arrested a prominent opposition leader and scholar, Gubad Ibadoghlu, on spurious criminal charges, Human Rights Watch said today.
On July 24, 2023, Baku’s Narimanov District Court sent Ibadoghlu for four months of pretrial detention on charges of production, acquisition or sale of counterfeit money by an organized group. If convicted, Ibadoghlu could face up to 12 years in prison. During the arrest, police ill-treated Ibadoglu and his wife, who was with him at the time. The authorities should drop charges against him and free him.
“Ibadoghlu’s detention falls squarely in a longstanding pattern of pursuing dubious charges against government critics in Azerbaijan,” said Giorgi Gogia, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Such spurious charges appear to serve only one goal – to silence opposition and critical voices in the country. He should be freed at once.”
Ibadoghlu, a well-known Azerbaijani politician, is the chairperson of the Azerbaijan Democracy and Prosperity Movement, established in 2014 with a social-democratic platform. Ibadoghlu has been trying to register the movement as a political party since February 2021.
In June 2023, Ibadoghlu established the Azerbaijani Youth Education Foundation in the UK, with two other Azerbaijani opposition politicians, Jamil Hasanli and Arif Mammadov, to support higher education for young Azerbaijanis, place them in universities abroad, and foster a new generation of professionals “for Azerbaijan’s future.” He stated on Facebook that the foundation would be funded by donations and also by foreign assets confiscated from corrupt Azerbaijani elites abroad.
Ibadoghlu’s efforts around the Azerbaijani Youth Education Foundation had become the target of a smear campaign by pro-government media outlets.
For years, Ibadoghlu led the Economic Research Center, a nongovernmental group that conducted research on public finance management, good governance, and budget transparency. The authorities froze the group’s bank accounts and forcibly closed it in 2014 as part of the sweeping crackdown on Azerbaijan’s civil society. Facing politically motivated charges, Ibadoghlu was forced to go into political exile in 2017, went back briefly to Azerbaijan in summer 2021, and returned at the end of June 2023.
Ibadoghlu is also a renowned political economist who has taught at various US and European institutions. Until recently, he was a senior visiting scholar at the London School of Economics.
On July 23, Ibadoghlu was driving in his car, accompanied by his wife, Irada Bayramova, to Sumgayit city, about 40 kilometers from Baku, to meet youth activists from his political party. Around 1 p.m., four civilian cars surrounded them, forcing his car into a traffic accident by ramming it with their vehicles from the rear and the front.
Their daughter, Zhala Bayramova, who spoke with her mother, said that about 20 people in civilian clothes jumped out of the vehicles, forced the couple out of their car, and physically assaulted them, then forced them into separate cars and drove them to the Interior Ministry’s Organized Crime Unit in Baku. Bayramova had multiple bruises to her arms, legs and back.
Plain-clothed officers on the scene did not explain the reasons for their detention at the time of arrest. Ibadoghlu filed a complaint about the ill-treatment, which authorities are allegedly investigating.
Officers put Ibadoghlu and Bayramova in separate cells. They questioned Bayramova without a lawyer of her choosing present and released her at around 7 p.m. the same day.
From around 5 p.m. until midnight, police searched the office of the Economic Research Center, in Baku’s Narimanov district, and allegedly seized US$40,000 in cash, dozens of documents, and computer equipment. Ibadoghlu’s family had been using the office but could not get in that morning, as the keys inexplicably did not work.
In a July 23 official statement, the Interior Ministry claimed that they arrested several people, including Ibadoghlu, as part of an operation against supporters of Fethullah Gülen, the US-based Sunni cleric who leads a movement that the Turkish government considers to be a terrorist organization and responsible for the 2016 military coup attempt in Turkey.
Ibadoghlu is suspected of producing, acquiring, or selling counterfeit money. According to a publicly available information, the authorities detained another man, Anar Aliyev, on July 20, who claimed that Ibadoghlu had given him money to exchange into local currency and run some errands for him.
Ibadoghlu denies all allegations against him.
Ibadoghlu’s family members told Human Rights watch that he is suffering from deteriorating health conditions, including type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, for which he had been taking at least four medications. Azerbaijani officials initially would not allow Irada Bayramova to transfer needed medications to her husband, insisting that she instead must purchase analogues in local pharmacies.
On July 24, officials allowed his lawyer to transfer his medications to detention officials in Baku. However, it is not known whether the medications will be sent on to the pre-trial detention facility in Kurdekhani, about 24 kilometers from Baku, where Ibadoglu was transferred on the evening of July 24.
The prosecutor asked the court to send Ibadoghlu for pretrial custody without providing any substantive justification, based solely on the gravity of the crime.
The court’s decision to accept such abstract and unsubstantiated reasons for Ibadoghlu’s pretrial detention violates the guarantee against arbitrary detention in the European Convention of Human Rights. Courts are required to ensure that detention is a measure of the last resort, justified by specific facts and personal circumstances relevant to the accused.
“The allegations against Ibadoghlu strain credulity,” Gogia said. “The authorities should immediately free him and drop the spurious charges. While he remains in custody, they should provide him access to his medications and ensure the highest possible standard of care.”