Ilham Aliyev has blown a gasket. The president of Azerbaijan has never looked kindly on independent journalists or dissidents. The February parliamentary elections were deemed by international observers to be devoid of real political competition. Now, in the midst of the pandemic, low oil prices and tensions with archrival Armenia, Aliyev has suddenly discovered a “fifth column” of enemies, the political opposition, and has begun throwing them in jail. Aliyev’s tantrum is threatening to obliterate what remains of independent political forces in Azerbaijan.

In a speech to the nation on the Novruz holiday in March, Aliyev pledged to combat the coronavirus pandemic. He said Azerbaijan was being undermined by “the enemies who are among us, the elements calling themselves opposition, the traitors who receive money from abroad. Their main goal is to destroy Azerbaijan.” The president said that during the pandemic, “the isolation of representatives of the fifth column will become a historical necessity.”

Then, from July 12 to July 16, Azeri forces fought with Armenia in the Tovuz district of northwestern Azerbaijan, the first conflict between them since 2016. Eleven Azeri servicemen, including a general, and a civilian were killed in fighting, and four Armenians died. The conflict set off a July 14-15 pro-military rally in Baku, the Azeri capital. Late in the protest, a group of people briefly stormed into the parliament building in Baku before they were removed by police, and several police cars were overturned by angry crowds.

Aliyev saw the protest as a pretext to go after the “fifth column.” In a screed delivered on July 15, the day after the rally, he attacked the largest opposition party, the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan. The leader, Ali Karimli, had actually spoken out in support of the army, saying, “We are behind our state and the army.” No matter, Aliyev put them squarely in his crosshairs. “We need to finish with the ‘fifth column,’ it cannot continue this way any longer,” he declared, vowing to go after “its dirty and corrupt leaders, cowards and deserters who consider themselves leaders.” He claimed the Popular Front is “worse than the Armenians.”

After he spoke, Azeri security services began arresting party members and others. Sources in Azerbaijan say that as many as 120 people are currently held, including some deputy leaders of the party as well as journalists. The U.S. State Department urged Azerbaijan on July 20 to avoid using the pandemic to silence “civil society advocacy, opposition voices, or public discussion.” Aliyev’s foreign ministry promptly replied with a gratuitous comment about protests over racial inequality in the United States, saying, “In this situation, we cannot understand who the U.S. State Department is worried about and why.”

Let us explain. In the United States, protests are the lifeblood of a functioning democracy, one that has its problems but guarantees rights of free speech and assembly — including the right to criticize the president. Aliyev’s use of the iron fist to destroy his critics is the opposite of democracy and why everyone should worry about this intemperate tyrant.

— The Washington Post

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