As an economist, Gubad Ibadoghlu has often turned a critical eye on his native Azerbaijan and its oil riches. He has asked, correctly, why the oil wealth has not led to a more prosperous or democratic country, and called out corruption and kleptocracy under President Ilham Aliyev. Now Mr. Aliyev is striking back.
On July 23, Mr. Ibadoghlu and his wife, Irada Bayramli, were stopped in their car outside of Baku by a group of 20 people in civilian clothes who beat them and took them in to police custody. Ms. Bayramli was released later that day, but Mr. Ibadoghlu was remanded by a court to three months and 26 days of pretrial detention on spurious charges of corruption.
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Mr. Ibadoghlu, who has taught over the years in the United States and Europe, was until recently a senior visiting scholar at the London School of Economics. He has led the Economic Research Center in Azerbaijan, a nongovernmental organization that focuses on economic development and good governance. In 2014, Mr. Aliyev’s regime ordered a freeze on the group’s bank accounts in a wider crackdown on civil society. Mr. Ibadoghlu, who was a 2015 Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, is also chairman of the Democracy and Prosperity Movement, founded in 2014, which the Azerbaijani government has refused to grant official status as a political party.
After his arrest, the authorities charged Mr. Ibadoghlu with counterfeiting, saying they found $40,000 in cash in the offices of his organization, and association with the exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom Turkey blames for an attempted coup in 2016. The Azerbaijani Ministry of Internal Affairs confirmed that Mr. Ibadoghlu was detained based on information from Turkey, a close ally of Azerbaijan. The charges are absurd.
The true reason for his detention is more likely related to events in June, when he helped found the Azerbaijani Youth Educational Foundation in Britain, aimed at preparing a new generation of Azerbaijani professionals. Mr. Ibadoghlu said it would be funded by donations, but also seeks to get funds that corrupt Azerbaijani politicians siphoned from the state and stashed in Britain. From 2012 to 2014, members of the ruling elite used a secret slush fund to pay off European politicians, buy luxury goods, launder money and otherwise benefit in what was called the Azerbaijani Laundromat, exposed by a consortium of journalists working under the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. The British government has recovered some of the illicit funds. Mr. Ibadoghlu clearly perturbed Mr. Aliyev with his plan to tap the spoils of the kleptocracy for his youth training project.
Mr. Aliyev also seeks to crush political opposition at home. In January, he signed a law that sharply restricts the ability of opposition political parties to function. As a result, Azerbaijan’s three most prominent opposition parties were recently denied registration — and face the possibility of being disbanded. Mr. Ibadoghlu had attempted six times without success to get his group registered, most recently in July.
Mr. Ibadoghlu is diabetic and has hypertension. His family says he has been denied access to medicine, and they fear for his health.
Meanwhile, the United States has been pressing Mr. Aliyev to ease the blockade that Azerbaijan has imposed around Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave, leading to a humanitarian crisis there. Azerbaijan is seeking to regain full control of Nagorno-Karabakh, which ethnic Armenian forces have controlled for three decades. Armenia and Azerbaijan have engaged in peace talks. Any contacts with Azerbaijan about the crisis should also include a plea for the immediate release of Mr. Ibadoghlu.