Many of those arrested on espionage charges were Azerbaijani soldiers on the front lines
BY RON SYNOVITZ
From Radio Free Europe
were arrested in raids during May — mostly in the Terter region.
Within days of being swept up in a wave of arrests on espionage charges last month, at least four Azerbaijani soldiers and a retired military officer died in custody. The circumstances of their deaths are shrouded in secrecy.
Azerbaijan’s government and military have refused to comment on the deaths, news of which emerged shortly after authorities in May announced the spy scandal.
Journalists who initially reported on the deaths have been warned by the Prosecutor-General’s Office to stop. And most relatives of the dead soldiers are reluctant to speak to journalists, with some expressing fear about their own safety if they do.
The silence, Baku’s poor human rights record, and the way Azerbaijan’s military hastily buried the soldiers without letting relatives see their bodies, have fed rumors that the suspects were tortured to death while being interrogated.
Spying For Armenia
The spy scandal came to light on May 7 when a joint statement was issued by the State Security Service, the Prosecutor-General’s Office, the Interior Ministry, and the Defense Ministry.
It said authorities had “opened a criminal case against a group of military personnel and civilians in Azerbaijan” on charges of “treason against the state.”
The statement said members of the spy ring had worked for the intelligence services of archrival Armenia “at various times in the past” and “for their own interest.”
It also said they provided “state secrets” to Armenia, which Azerbaijan has been locked in conflict with over Nagorno-Karabakh for decades.
Azerbaijan’s authorities have not named any individuals accused in the spy case or specified how many suspects were arrested and charged.
But Ilham Ismayil, a former State Security Service officer, told RFE/RL that a total of 42 people were arrested in raids during May — mostly in the Terter region.
Ismayil told RFE/RL that the spy scandal stemmed from an incident in late 2016 when a group of Armenian military officers allegedly were allowed to cross from Nagorno-Karabakh and travel behind Azerbaijan’s front lines with the help of Azerbaijani officers.
He said some Armenian officers were given Azerbaijani military uniforms to wear and that they traveled to the center of Terter — a city that was heavily damaged by Armenian forces during the Nagorno-Karabakh war in the early 1990s.
State Security Service chief Madat Guliyev said the roundup of spy-ring suspects was ordered by President Ilham Aliyev after investigators under Guliyev’s command provided evidence to both the president and the Defense Ministry. Based on that evidence, the Defense Ministry took action.
Neither the State Security Service nor Azerbaijan’s government has publicly disclosed the nature of the intelligence the suspects allegedly provided to Armenia.
And, so far, there have been no public court hearings for any of the suspects.
Yadigar Sadiqov, a politician from the opposition party Musavat, has suggested that the deaths in custody of so many suspects just days after their arrests is highly suspicious.
“We don’t believe they died of natural causes,” Sadiqov wrote in a May 20 opinion column for the Baku-based online newspaper Bastainfo.com.
Sadiqov also suggested many people in Azerbaijan assume the suspects were tortured to death, noting that “across social media, there are people saying the government was justified to torture and kill” them.
In each case, the suspects were detained in raids close to the contact line that separates Armenian-backed and Azerbaijani forces near Nagorno-Karabakh.
Within days, their dead bodies were returned to their home villages and buried by soldiers who did not allow relatives to see them.