BAKU (RFE/RL) — A prominent Azerbaijani journalist and political analyst has been deported from Turkey and arrested in Azerbaijan on charges of high treason reportedly stemming from his repeated trips to Armenia.
Rauf Mirkadyrov, a veteran columnist for the Baku-based newspaper “Zerkalo,” was put on a plane in Ankara at the weekend and flown to Baku, where he was immediately detained by officers of the Azerbaijani National Security Ministry. Mirkadyrov’s lawyer told Azerbaijani media afterwards that his client has been charged with espionage.
Mirkadyrov was formally remanded in pre-trial custody on Monday. In a statement cited by local news agencies, Azerbaijan’s Office of the Prosecutor-General claimed that Mirkadyrov was recruited by Armenian intelligence agents in 2008. It said he repeatedly met with them in Armenia, Georgia and Turkey in the following years to pass on “information about the political, social and military situation” in Azerbaijan that included state secrets.
“We are also told that he has visited Armenia and held a number of meetings there without the knowledge of official representatives of Azerbaijan’s government,” the APA news agency reported earlier in the day.
“Zerkalo” scoffed at the espionage accusation. “Any honest Azerbaijani journalist can only work for them [Armenians,]” the Russian-language independent paper commented sarcastically on its website.
“Armenia occupied about 20 percent of Azerbaijani territory and the war between the two states is still not over. Therefore, negotiations can only be conducted by the two heads of state,” Elchin Behbudov of the Azerbaijani Committee Against Torture was quoted by APA as saying in connection with the high-profile case.
Mirkadyrov’s analytical articles written for “Zerkalo” on an almost daily basis have generally focused on the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and broader regional geopolitics. Since late 1990s he has repeatedly visited Armenia for regional or Armenian-Azerbaijani forums sponsored by Western governments and private institutions. His most recent trip to Yerevan took place in December.
The Institute of Peace and Democracy (IPD), a Baku-based non-governmental organization that has long organized meetings with Armenian civil society members, condemned Mirkadyrov’s arrest, saying that it heralds a government ban on people-to-people contacts with Azerbaijan’s arch-foe.
“After President Ilham Aliyev came to power [in 2003] the conduct in Azerbaijan of conferences organized by NGOs with the participation of invited colleagues from Armenia became impossible,” the IPD director, Leyla Yunus, said in a statement posted on the contact.az news portal. “For the past 10 years such joint meetings have been possible only outside Azerbaijan and in Armenia in particular.”
Yunus argued that such Western-backed contacts are important for a resolution of the Karabakh conflict in the absence of progress in the long-running peace talks between the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments. She cited recent statements to that effect made by James Warlick, the U.S. mediator in the Karabakh peace process. Mirkadyrov’s arrest will preclude “further visits by Azerbaijani civil society activists to Armenia,” added Yunus.
The Azerbaijani authorities reportedly attempted to officially ban any contact with Armenians not sanctioned by them with a bill that was submitted to parliament a year ago. The proposed legislation was dropped following a domestic and international uproar.
Mirkadyrov has lived in Turkey with his family for the past three years. He is said to have told a colleague shortly before his arrest that he got in trouble with the Turkish authorities immediately after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s April 7 visit to Baku.
Another Azerbaijani journalist, Mahir Zeynalov, was deported from Turkey in February. He blamed the expulsion on his criticism of Erdogan’s government.
According to the New York-based Committee to Project Journalists (CPJ), at least eight Azerbaijani reporters were in jail in relation to their work prior to Mirkadyrov’s arrest. One of them, Tofiq Yaqublu, was sentenced to five years in prison last month for “organizing mass disturbances” in January 2013. The CPJ condemned the verdict as baseless and politically motivated.