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Politics seen behind trials of Azerbaijan ex-officials

July 14, 2007|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — The way Farhad Aliyev's wife sees it, accusations of corruption and plotting a coup against her husband would collapse if only they could get the attention of his former boss, Azerbaijan's president. The way others see it, the president is the problem.

Aliyev, the former minister of economic development in this oil-rich country bordering the Caspian Sea, was arrested nearly two years ago and is now on trial on corruption charges. His wife, Sabina, says she hasn't been allowed to see him since his arrest, but that she knows the charges are fabrications.

She and her husband's legal team are appealing to the country's president, Ilham Aliyev, to examine the case. The president, who is not related to her husband, "is misinformed about this case, and we hope that this trial will help to open his eyes," she said in a telephone interview from the capital, Baku.

Some critics of the government, however, describe the prosecution of the former minister and 18 codefendants as an effort by the president and associates to destroy rivals. They say that the president is fully aware of developments in the trial.

"On the one hand, the regime is getting rid of its internal political opponents, and on the other hand we see a process of redistribution of wealth and property in favor of high-placed figures loyal to Ilham Aliyev," said Isa Gambar, head of the opposition Musavat Party.

A predominantly Muslim country of about 8 million people, Azerbaijan is part of a strategic energy corridor that allows oil from the Caspian region to be exported to the West without going through Iran or Russia. The $4-billion Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline that runs through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey is capable of carrying 1 million barrels of oil a day more than 1,000 miles to the Mediterranean Sea.

Both the government and the opposition are basically secular and pro-Western, but some critics warn that if democratic forces are repressed, radical Islamic groups could become the main opposition.

Authorities have not filed charges on the allegation that the minister was plotting a coup, and it is unclear whether they will. But Gambar said the corruption charges and counter-charges by the defendants that have come out in the trial already have hurt the government.

"Society knows quite well that the authorities are corrupt," he said. "But it is one thing when only opposition leaders talk about it and rank-and-file citizens discuss it among themselves. It is quite different when people who for a long time worked in the government

Ilham Aliyev won the presidency in a disputed election in October 2003, replacing his father, Heydar A. Aliyev, who was hospitalized at the time and later died. Opponents criticized the power transfer as a quasi-monarchical succession, whereas supporters said it was the only way to guarantee stability in the former Soviet state.

Farhad Aliyev's trial on charges of abuse of office, bribery, embezzlement of state property, smuggling and tax evasion began in May. His brother Rafig, who was arrested on the same day in October 2005, is among the codefendants, facing charges of embezzlement and tax evasion. At the time of his arrest, Rafig Aliyev was head of Azpetrol, the country's largest private oil company. The government has seized its assets, estimated to be worth about $250 million.

Testifying in his own behalf, Farhad Aliyev said authorities told him he could be released if he met a number of demands. They included admitting that he had lent money intended to be used in a coup and that he had plotted against the government, apologizing to the president, appealing for a pardon, and handing over $100 million.

According to a transcript released by his legal team, the former minister said he rejected those demands.

Presidential administration head Ramiz Mehtiyev ridiculed the allegation that authorities had demanded $100 million for his release. "His statement is groundless; that is fantasy," Mehtiyev said, according to the Azer-Press news agency.

The charge that has received the heaviest coverage in Azerbaijan's pro-government media is the allegation that Farhad Aliyev misappropriated "privatization vouchers" worth about $3.35 million. These vouchers were a kind of coupon distributed to citizens that could be resold to investors and then used in the purchase of state assets. He is also accused of distributing off-the-books supplemental salary payments to ministry employees.

Farhad Aliyev and his supporters charge that other senior officials were responsible for any misappropriation of vouchers. And they say that many government employees receive off-the-books salaries.

"The main motive is political," said Rauf Mirkadyrov, a commentator with the Zerkalo, or Mirror, newspaper. "The authorities don't want people to know how much money officials get. But the bulk of that extra money comes from corruption anyway.... Here we see a typical case of selective enforcement because any minister can go to prison for that crime."

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