fbpx Skip to main content

By Tigran Sargsyan, legal and policy intern

On Feb. 17, Azerbaijani dictator Ilham Aliyev, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz held a meeting on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference. This gathering was the first since Azerbaijan’s military aggression against Nagorno-Karabakh last September, which led to a mass exodus of Armenians from the region. The meeting highlighted the stark contrast between the international image Azerbaijan seeks to project and the reality of its authoritarian domestic governance. 

Earlier this month, Azerbaijanis went to the polls to vote for the country’s next president. The elections, which were supposed to take place in April 2025, were moved to Feb. 7, 2024, so as not to give the opposition forces a chance to prepare and unite. 

Unlike in democracies, where elections are largely free, fair, and transparent and the results often upset the incumbent, in Azerbaijan, the results were predetermined long in advance. Aliyev, who has ruled the country since 2003, “won” the elections with more than 92 percent of the vote.

In Azerbaijan, elections are an obscure and corrupt process fully controlled by the regime. Aliyev, who assumed power in 2003 shortly before his father’s death, controls all levers of power through coercion and appointed yes-men. Taken together, the Aliyevs have ruled the country since 1993, making their family one of the longest-lasting political dynasties in post-Soviet countries.

In more than three decades of their rule, elections without an alternative have become a state tradition in the largest country in the South Caucasus. During the 2003 elections, Aliyev received 76.86% of the votes; in the subsequent 2008, 88.73%; in 2013, 84.54%; and in 2018, 86.22%. It may be tempting to assume that the reason lies in the dictator’s popularity, but the real reason is a lack of competition. The regime approves all electoral candidates, and the real opposition is either behind bars or in exile.

Aliyev began preparing for the elections not by working with the electorate but by pre-election repression against the opposition, activists, and journalists. On July 23, 2023, Gubad Ibadoghlu, an Azerbaijani economist, human rights activist, and prominent critic of the regime, was brutally arrested. Ibadoghlu actively criticized the government and denounced corruption and human rights violations. Before his arrest, he was planning to publish an investigation linking the Aliyev family to the corruption schemes of the Azerbaijani military during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war.

Ibadoghlu and his wife, Irada, were beaten by two dozen undercover security officers. He was charged with trumped-up charges of “selling counterfeit money by an organized group.” Since then, Ibadoghlu has been in prison without proper medical care, and his health has deteriorated sharply. Despite this, the authorities have denied him medical attention, and there are alarming reports of torture and abuse in prison. 

Tofig Yagublu, an opposition politician and activist, has also served numerous prison sentences for political activities. In December 2021, for example, he was severely beaten by police after being arrested. On Dec.14, 2023, Yagublu was again detained on trumped-up charges of “fraud.” He is an active member of the National Council of Democratic Forces, which has congregated opposition movements and held several demonstrations in defense of political prisoners who were brutally suppressed in 2019. 

International human rights organizations, including HRF, consider Gubad Ibadoghlu and Tofig Yagublu as prisoners of conscience and regularly demand their release.

Another side of President Aliyev’s façade of an election is the repression of independent media. The outlet Abzas Media exposed corruption and human rights issues, which irritated the Aliyev regime. On Nov. 20, 2023, Azerbaijani police arrested Abzas Media director Ulvi Hasanli, chief editor Sevinj Vagifgizi, and Hasanli’s assistant, Mahammad Kekalov. Many journalists working for Abzas Media were summoned to the police and interrogated. The office of an independent media outlet was raided, and its equipment confiscated. Police said they found 40,000 euros in the office and charged Hasanli with “foreign currency smuggling.” According to Abzas Media’s representatives, the charges were fabricated, and the money was planted.

Shortly before the persecution, Abzas Media released an investigation into the dividing of agricultural land in the occupied territories of Nagorno-Karabakh among high-ranking officials and the Aliyev family. Another article shed light on abuses and corporate raids in the banking sector associated with the dictator’s companies. According to Hasanli, he was beaten and, while interrogated, was asked why Abzas chose to cover corruption rather than Azerbaijan’s military successes.

Journalists from Kanal 11 and Kanal 13 suffered a similar fate. The regime banned the media outlets, and the police arrested Teymur Karimov, Nargiz Absalamova, Aziz Orujov, Rufat Muradli, and Nurlan Gahramanli. They all faced trumped-up charges of “conspiring to bring money into the country illegally.” 

Many journalists had to leave the country to continue working freely. However, the tentacles of the Aliyev regime have also reached beyond Azerbaijan. For example, in 2017, Azerbaijani special services abducted journalist Afgan Mukhtarli from Georgia and sentenced him to six years for “illegal crossing of the state border, contraband, and resistance against government officials.” Under international pressure, he was released in 2020, but persecution of journalists abroad continues to this day. Opposition blogger Husein Bakixanov was attacked by unknown assailants and died under suspicious circumstances in Tbilisi, Georgia. Opposition Azerbaijani journalists Nurana Ashurova, Aytan Farhadova, and Gurban Mammadli, living in Georgia, report surveillance, frequent threats, and attacks from unknown Azeri-speaking people. In the 2023 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders, Azerbaijan ranked 151 out of 180.

Dozens of opposition leaders and pro-democracy activists have fallen victim to the regime’s repression campaign, their voices suppressed and lives threatened behind bars. Aliyev’s latest electoral “victory” was only further proof.

Tigran Sargsyan is a legal and policy intern with the Human Rights Foundation (HRF).