Emin Ahmedbekov, a former political prisoner and opposition journalist from Azerbaijan, sought asylum with his family in Bulgaria, but it has been denied to him. This was announced for Bivol by Ganimad Zahid, the founder of the website Azadlik (Freedom) and the television The Hour of Azerbaijan.

Zahid, who lives in exile in Paris, is one of the “Hundred Information Heroes” of Reporters Without Borders. The only representative of Bulgaria in this prestigious ranking is Asen Yordanov from Bivol. Azerbaijan has three representatives – Ganimad Zahid, Khadija Ismayilova and Malahat Nasibova.

Because of his opposition to the regime of Ilham Aliyev, Zahid and Ahmedbekov were thrown in prison after being convicted on fabricated charges. Already in exile, Zahid got in touch with Ahmedbekov, who started contributing to The Hour of Azerbaijan, working remotely and is currently Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the satellite TV which has hundreds of thousands of viewers in Azerbaijan. Ahmedbekov, a former officer of the Azerbaijani Interior Ministry, is also the author of a damning publication that led to the resignations of senior officials from the Interior Ministry in Baku.

After Ahmedbekov was arrested and sentenced in 2010, his wife and children did not concede. Despite pressure from the authorities, they gave news conferences in Baku and complained to the European Court of Human Rights (case 42343/10 Ahmadbayov vis Azerbaijan). After he came out of prison, Ahmedbekov left Azerbaijan with his family and sought asylum in Ukraine. There, the consideration of his application dragged on indefinitely. Finally, he understood that the authorities in Baku have been informed of his political refugee record. “Ukraine is dangerous for us,” he said in August 2013 before an Associated Press correspondent who wrote about the fate of asylum seekers in Kiev.

Ahmedbekov’s family tried to get to Germany through Turkey, but all were arrested in Bulgaria for not having their ID documents in order. The journalist filed for political asylum with the President, who at the end of 2014 refused without giving reasons. Several days ago, he and his family also received refusals by the Agency for Refugees on grounds that “the level of overall violence in Azerbaijan is not excessive” and there was no reason for them to fear returning to Baku.

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Bulgaria and Azerbaijan – common front against free speech

It should be noted that Ahmedbekov’s asylum application is solidly backed by evidence of organizations of Azerbaijani political exiles that send letters in support. This, however, proved insufficient or rather harmful. Ahmedbekov said before Bivol that during his interview with the Agency for Refugees, he has been told bluntly that Bulgaria will not harm its relations with Azerbaijan because of him.


One of the letters of support for Ahmedbekov’s political refugee status

The improvement of the relations between the two countries is evident in recent months. First, Bulgaria welcomed Aliyev with honors, then President Plevneliev visited Azerbaijan, and now Vice President Margarita Popova is on an official visit there.

The reason for the numerous visits and exchanges of pleasantries is Bulgaria’s hope to buy Azerbaijani natural gas. However, there is another crossing point between the realities in both countries.

The President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev is one of the most prominent enemies and persecutors of freedom of speech worldwide and Bulgaria is last in the rankings for freedom of speech in Europe, at the unenviable 106th place.

The detention of journalists critical of the regime in Azerbaijan is a systematic practice. The latest shocking case is that of Khadija Ismayilova from Radio Freedom who for months now has been in police custody over absurd accusations. A recent report of Freedom Now and The Human Rights House Network (HRHN) notes regarding the situation with freedom of speech and political rights of citizens in Azerbaijan that the Azerbaijani authorities have a strategy to choke the critical voices by politically motivated criminal cases and arrests. Since 2009, the legislation has been tightened to restrict rights of expression and peaceful assembly. The result is that civil society in the country is destroyed.

This is an unenviable result that leading politicians in Bulgaria would also like to achieve, and no doubt would have achieved if they had not been under European watch. Maybe that’s why, after the numerous high-level visits to Baku, the “population” of the parliamentary group for friendship with Azerbaijan is so numerous. With 31 members, it is the eighth largest of 80 groups for “organized parliamentary tourism”.

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