A press freedom advocate -- and husband of an American servicewoman -- went to the U.S. embassy in Azerbaijan, fearing for his life. But he was turned away.
- By Michael WeissMichael Weiss is the editor in chief of the Interpreter, an online journal that translates and analyzes Russian media. Follow him on Twitter: @michaeldweiss.
An Azerbaijani dissident married to a U.S. servicewoman has spent the last half-year living in the Swiss embassy in Baku, denied protection by the American embassy there. The 35-year-old human rights defender Emin Huseynov has long been persecuted by the authoritarian government of Ilham Aliyev and since August 2014 has been hosted by the Swiss embassy for humanitarian reasons after he went into hiding last summer, fearing his arrest was imminent.
The Swiss television show “Rundschau” broke the news today, and the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed Huseynov’s residence in its embassy. The story of how he got there six-and-a-half months ago resembles an international thriller redolent of Argo, though conspicuously absent of U.S. involvement. It was relayed exclusively to Foreign Policy by sources close to Huseynov in advance of today’s announcement.
As chairman of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS), a local NGO, Huseynov is one of many victims of an intense government crackdown on free speech and civil society that has taken place in Azerbaijan over the past year — a crackdown that has surprised even hardened human rights monitors. In May 2014, Anar Mammadli, the chairman of the highly regarded Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center (EMDS), was sentenced to five–and–a–half years in prison for spurious charges which included tax evasion and illegal entrepreneurship; his real crime, according to human rights monitors, was reporting on the Aliyev government’s election-rigging. Meanwhile, the executive director of EMDS, Bashir Suleymanli, got three–and–a–half years in jail. Then in July, Leyla Yunus, a noted democracy and peace activist working on the reconciliation of the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis, was arrested on a suite of similarly concocted charges that include high treason and spying on behalf of Armenia; her husband, Arif Yunis, was also taken into custody on treason and fraud allegations. Finally in August, two Azerbaijani legal activists — Rasul Jafarov and Intigam Aliyev — were rounded up. That same month, fearing for his life, Huseynov went into hiding.
According to sources, his bank accounts were first frozen in June, and yet Huseynov was still able to leave the country, which he did to attend a session at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in Strasbourg where he and Jafarov put on an event exposing Aliyev’s suffocation of civil society in Azerbaijan. After Jafarov was detained, Huseynov sensed the net closing on him. In early August, Huseynov attended an event at the U.S. embassy in Baku where he eventually found himself alone with the Chargé d’Affaires Dereck Hogan. The American ambassador, Richard Morningstar, had left Azerbaijan only a week earlier, leaving the embassy without a diplomatic head. According to sources, Huseynov scribbled a note on a piece of paper which he passed to Hogan: “What kind of assistance can you provide me? I am in danger of arrest.” Hogan said he couldn’t help.
“[Huseynov] never had a bad relationship with Dereck,” said one source who requested anonymity. “He never criticized the embassy and tried to be diplomatic even when he criticized U.S. policy in Azerbaijan.” Foreign Policy tried to contact Hogan at the embassy and was referred instead to the State Department in Washington. No one responded to inquiries by press time.
On August 6, Huseynov tried to leave the country to receive medical treatment in Turkey, but was stopped by border control and turned back. The day after that, August 8, colleagues from his office called to inform him that the headquarters of IRFS was being surveilled by state security, and warned Huseynov not to come to work. The office was then raided, prompting rumors in the Azerbaijani press that Huseynov had been arrested. He hadn’t. Instead, he went into hiding, which only amplified speculation as to his whereabouts. Press reports said he had fled to the U.S. embassy, which on August 12 put out a statement denying that it was harboring him — a two-line denial that many familiar with the case said read uncomfortably like a total repudiation of an embattled dissident. But Washington wasn’t totally unsympathetic to his predicament: the U.S. mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe issued a blanket statement on August 14 calling on Baku to “halt the continuing arrests of peaceful activists, to stop freezing organizations’ and individuals’ bank accounts, and to release those who have been incarcerated in connection with the exercise of their fundamental freedoms,” mentioning the Yunuses, Jafarov, and Huseynov by name.
But the fact that Huseynov, while not a U.S. citizen himself, has an American wife ought to have made his case more of a priority to the State Department, according to human rights monitors and one ex-diplomat.
A few European countries allegedly offered to take Huseynov in; he opted for Switzerland, owing to its embassy’s proximity to his hideout. “He totally changed his physical appearance, he dyed his hair, wore a disguise,” one source relayed. “Emin even did test runs: he’d go out in disguise to see if people recognized him.”
On August 18, he made a play for the embassy grounds. A car driven by an Azeri confidante, who evidently had to flee the country after his identity was uncovered, dropped him off a few blocks away. The authorities were aware that Huseynov was attempting refuge in a foreign country and had begun staking out embassy entrances in Baku. “Emin was walking to the embassy and realized there’s tons of plainclothes cops,” said a source familiar with Huseynov’s story. “They tried to talk to him. He spoke to them in broken English to try and throw them off. They asked to see his passport. ‘No, no,’ he said, ‘the Swiss have my passport.’ They didn’t recognize him at first. He rang the doorbell to the embassy, as the cops were still interrogating him. Someone opened the door and pulled him inside. A five-second hesitation and Emin swears he’d have been nabbed.”
Huseynov would spend the next several months living on Swiss soil in his native country, flanked by a 24-hour police cordon of the embassy. The Aliyev government has not publicly acknowledged his presence in the Swiss embassy and, until today, the Swiss hadn’t either, although they’ve been negotiating with the Aliyev government for Huseynov’s safe passage out of Azerbaijan.
His case was known to a number of human rights monitors that Foreign Policy contacted for comment, such as Giorgi Gogia, the South Caucasus specialist at Human Rights Watch. “I know that the Swiss government has been negotiating at the highest level possible with Azerbaijan,” Gogia said. “And I know the Azerbaijan government has been against letting Emin leave. It’s crazy that this is ongoing.”
Huseynov’s safe conduct out of the country is particularly critical because the last time he was arrested — for attending a party celebrating the birthday of Che Guevara — he was beaten by police so badly he wound up in intensive care and had to be treated for head and brain trauma. That was in 2008. Huseynov’s younger brother, Mehman, a video blogger and photojournalist who also works for IRFS, was also targeted by the police in 2012 for drawing attention to human rights violations during the Eurovision Song Contest held in Baku that year. In October 2014, Mehman was again arrested and brought to the Investigation Department of the Prosecutor General for Serious Crimes. He, too, has also been barred from leaving Azerbaijan.
According to Gogia, while Azerbaijan’s record on human rights has always been dismal, conditions have grown infinitely worse recently. “Three major things have happened that have never happened before. First, the government arrested the towering figures of the NGO movements. Second, since last January, it hasn’t registered a single foreign grant. In the past, you had to register a grant at the Ministry of Justice, but it was a pro forma procedure and no one was refused. Third, the government went after and froze the bank accounts of over 50 NGOs and their leaders, including [Huseynov]. Very suddenly, from a very bad human rights record, it turned into a closed-country human rights record. It was really hard and shocking to see how fast the country was closing down. And the perverse irony is that all this is taking place as Azerbaijan chairs the Council of Ministers at PACE.”
One former American diplomat questions the U.S. embassy’s hands-off approach. “If the embassy knew that person was married to an American citizen, that would require more than if this were just a normal Azerbaijani citizen facing harassment or arrest by the police,” said Richard Kauzlarich, who served as ambassador to Azerbaijan in 1994-1997. “There’s not much you can do for your average everyday citizen of the country you’re embassy is in, but if it’s the spouse of one our own, that changes things.”
Curiously, while Huseynov was running for his life, another urgent human rights episode occurred, again ensnaring the U.S. embassy in Baku — this one seemingly less complicated, however, as it concerned someone with dual Azerbaijani-American citizenship.
Said Nuri, who became a U.S. citizen in 2012 after six years of political asylum, was used to traveling back to Azerbaijan without incident, albeit with a tail of police surveillance. “The government followed me everywhere, took my pictures. Sitting in cafe or restaurant — they put a camera on the next table taping us. Even my friends published articles about that,” Nuri said. But then, last August, he applied for a visa to visit his father, whom he had just discovered had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. “I was in Ukraine at the time, so I went to the Azerbaijani embassy in Kiev. It took three weeks to get the visa. I went to Baku. I stayed seven days with my family. Then, when I was trying to fly back to Kiev, the authorities told me I couldn’t leave. ‘There’s a travel ban on you,’ the minister of national security and general prosecutor office’s said.”
So Nuri went to the U.S. embassy. “They were confused. It took them two hours to get back to me to confirm the travel ban. But they didn’t give me much information. ‘It’s a domestic issue,’ I was told. The next day, the general prosecutor released statement that I need to be questioned regarding some criminal charges. I hired a lawyer, went to the prosecutor’s office and was interrogated for six hours. They asked me about affiliation with the U.S. government, if I was CIA. They asked about my relationship to NGOs, journalists. How did I get asylum and then citizenship? Why did I travel to Ukraine so often? Why did I have pictures from the Maidan [the central square in Kiev then roiled in revolution]? They were accusing me of espionage and all these questions related to U.S. government and U.S.-funded programs, the National Endowment for Democracy, and so on.”
Nuri’s lawyer informed him that the authorities planned to charge him with spying on behalf of the United States. But the U.S. embassy, Nuri insists, was useless. He obtained letters from then-Freedom House President David Kramer and Sen. John McCain arguing his brief, but the diplomatic response from an embassy official Nuri declined to name was, roughly: “We understand you’re our citizen, but the problem is you’re on foreign soil and this country is claiming you’re also their citizen. It’s a sovereign country, so we can’t intervene in their domestic policies.” The Aliyev government, meanwhile, was trying to co-opt him, promising him a better life if he remained in Azerbaijan and publicly repudiated his American citizenship. Where gentle persuasion failed, the government resorted to other means: “They taped me having sex with my girlfriend and tried to blackmail me,” says Nuri. The whole ordeal then ended almost as spontaneously as it had begun. After eight days of intense grilling and intimidation, Nuri was deported and his Azerbaijani citizenship revoked. He now lives in Chicago.
“Azerbaijan has shown they’re prepared to do unpleasant things to American citizens and people associated with American organizations, such as RFE/RL,” Ambassador Kauzlarich said, referring to the December 2014 imprisonment of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty contributor Khadija Ismayilova, a pioneering anti-corruption journalist who previously had her home bugged and, like Nuri, was surreptitiously recorded having sex, the tape of which was leaked on the Internet. According to Kauzlarich, the government has now all but declared Cold War on the United States. “In my time, having an association with an American didn’t buy you protection but there was a willingness not to do certain things that would cause problems in the relationship. Now I just don’t think they care.”
For dissidents, the worry is that the Obama administration doesn’t seem particularly bothered by what’s happening in the oil-rich authoritarianism on the Caspian, which, as I previously reported, has spent the last half-decade expending enormous energy and money lobbying the United States and Europe for political influence.
“I went to an event the other day here in Washington where State Department officials announced that they’re going to pursue engagement policy with the Aliyev government,” Alakbar Raufoglu, an opposition journalist at the D.C.-based TURAN News Agency, told FP. “They didn’t mention they’re going to highlight a crackdown on democratic activity. They said they’ll support RFE/RL as much as they can but engagement policy is number one right now.” For Raufoglu, the future of this relationship can be seen in microcosm in a video released just yesterday by the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan, Robert Cekuta. “Look at what he said the U.S. priorities are: First is regional security, second is economic growth, and third is democratic development. Nothing has changed even as the regime has grown worse,” said Raufoglu. “This is a chilling message that they’re leaving us behind.”
As for Huseynov, now that his whereabouts are internationally known, his fate remains uncertain. Living out of an embassy can be a long-time affair. Just ask WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who obtained asylum from Ecuador fearing extradition to Sweden to face questioning over allegations of sexual assault.* He has not left the Ecuadorian embassy in London for nearly three years. The Swiss mission in Baku is hardly a sprawling palatial compound. “It’s a little tiny embassy,” a source involved in his case said.
*Correction, Feb. 12, 2015: Sweden wants to question Julian Assange in regards to allegations of sexual assault. An earlier version of this article mistakenly said Assange is facing sexual-assault charges.
Photo credit: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images