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Tofig Yagublu, in Baku, Azerbaijan, December 1, 2023.  © 2023 Ulviyya Ali

(Berlin, December 19, 2023) – Azerbaijani authorities have arrested a prominent opposition leader and unrelenting government critic, Tofig Yagublu, on bogus forgery and fraud charges, Human Rights Watch said today. Yagublu’s arrest is the latest in a series of arrests in Azerbaijan targeting journalists and other government critics.

Police arrested Yagublu, 62, a former journalist who is an outspoken critic of the government, on December 14, 2023, as he was exiting the metro in central Baku. He is a member of the opposition Musavat Party and a senior politician in the National Council of Democratic Forces, a coalition of opposition parties and activists in Azerbaijan.

“Azerbaijani authorities are continuing their assault on government opponents, journalists and other critics,” said Giorgi Gogia, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Tofig Yagublu’s arrest falls into the pattern of silencing the country’s critical voices.”

On December 15, the Narimanov District Court of Baku ordered four months in pretrial custody for Yagublu, pending investigation on forgery and fraud charges. The prosecutor’s office had requested pretrial detention, contending that Yagublu would abscond or interfere with the investigation without producing any information to substantiate this claim. The court also referenced the nature and gravity of the offense allegedly committed by Yagublu when granting the pretrial detention.

The decision to send Yagublu for pretrial detention on unsubstantiated pro forma grounds violates standards against arbitrary detention required by the European Convention of Human Rights, Human Rights Watch said.

On December 14, police searched Yagublu’s home, where they claim to have found in his bed €5,000 (US$5,465), 2,500 Azerbaijani manat (US$1,500) and an unspecified amount in US dollars. The authorities allege that Yagublu conspired with someone else to provide fake documents to a third party to supposedly help him build an asylum claim. The alleged co-conspirator has been implicated in other politically motivated cases, Human Rights Watch said.

Yagublu rejects all accusations and says that he has been targeted because of his political activism.

Yagublu's wife, Maya Yagublu, was home alone when about 20 policemen appeared at their door. A group of officers told her to follow them upstairs, while others stayed on the first floor. After finishing the search upstairs, they went downstairs to the bedroom she shares with her husband, told her to lift the pillows on the bed, and then claimed to “discover” the cash. “My mom was shocked to see so much cash,” their daughter, Nigar Hezi, told Human Rights Watch. “A day before, she had to borrow money from our neighbor because she did not have enough to complete her dental treatment.”

During the search, police confiscated the Wi-Fi router, Maya Yagublu’s phone, and an old laptop. They also took the notebook that she kept for all outstanding debts as well as an address and telephone notebook. None of the confiscated items have been returned.

In December 2022, police installed three security cameras across the street from Yagublu’s home, most likely tracking all movement around his private residence.

This is not Yagublu’s first arrest. Azerbaijani authorities have periodically arrested Yagublu, subjected him to ill-treatment, and warned him to stop his political activism and criticism of the government. Yagublu previously spent three years behind bars on spurious incitement charges between 2013 and 2016. In 2020, a court sentenced him to four years and three months on hooliganism charges. In September 2020, the authorities granted him an early release.

Yagublu’s arrest is the latest in a series of at least 12 arrests targeting opponents, journalists, and other government critics since November 20. The authorities charged them with various criminal offenses, including smuggling, illegal entrepreneurship, and hooliganism. Courts have sent at least 11 of them to pretrial custody for up to four months after perfunctory hearings.

“The Azerbaijani government’s witch hunt against critics is one manifestation of its contempt for free speech and human rights protections,” Gogia said. “The authorities should immediately free Yagublu and end the crackdown on critical journalists and opposition activists.”

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