In the oil-rich Caucasus republic of Azerbaijan, the consolidation of power within the ruling Aliyev family has seen a steady and calculated progression, camouflaged under the guise of constitutional amendments and electoral processes. Over the past two decades, the Azerbaijani Constitution has been altered thrice, with each revision reinforcing the stranglehold of the Aliyev dynasty.
In 2002, an alteration to the constitution granted executive powers to the Prime Minister should the president be unable to fulfill their duties. Shortly after, President Heydar Aliyev fell ill before appointing his son, Ilham Aliyev, to be Prime Minister. This move was a prelude to Ilham Aliyev's subsequent ascension to the presidency in October 2003, a victory tainted by widespread electoral fraud and the suppression of opposition voices, as documented by Human Rights Watch.
“As the election drew nearer, government officials openly sided with Ilham Aliev, obstructed opposition rallies, and sought to limit participation in them. Police have beaten and arbitrarily detained hundreds of opposition activists, including a seventy-three-year-old woman,”according to a briefing about the 2003 Azerbaijan presidential election by Human Rights Watch.
Following a second presidential term, the Azerbaijani constitution underwent further transformation, abolishing the two-term limit for the presidency. This maneuver opened the door for Ilham Aliyev to secure a third term, ultimately paving the way for another constitutional revision to increase the presidential term from five years to seven years. Amidst these changes, Aliyev further entrenched familial influence by appointing his wife, Mehriban Aliyev, as the first Vice President of Azerbaijan in 2017.
In a recent OC Media report, “Azerbaijani authorities have arrested at least five people who spoke out against the war following the beginning of Azerbaijan’s military offensive against Nagorno-Karabakh.”
On February 15, 2022, police detained, assaulted, and verbally abused Fatima Movlamli and Sevinj Sadigova, journalists covering protests by mothers of deceased Azerbaijani servicemen. Another journalist, Ayten Mammedova, suffered minor injuries in a knife attack, the assailant made it evident that the assault was linked to her journalistic work.
In 2014, Baku based journalist Khadija Ismayilova was arrested and sentenced in 2015 to seven and a half years on false charges of tax evasion and abuse of authority. Khadija worked at Radio Free Europe in Baku interviewing people and publishing articles exposing corruption in her country. In an interview with BBC, Ismayilova’s lawyer Amal Clooney criticizes the Azerbaijani government regarding the sentencing, “I think it’s extremely disturbing. Khadija is one of the most competent and courageous investigative reporters in her country.”
Dissidents and activists critical of the 2020 Azerbaijan-Armenia war also found themselves in the crosshairs of an orchestrated online smear campaign reportedly facilitated through government-affiliated social media accounts. In September of 2022, Ahmad Mammadli, an activist and head of the NGO Democracy 1918 Movement, was sentenced to 30 days in jail for criticizing President Aliyev after attacks on Nagorno Karabakh.
In a social media post Ahmad wrote, “Ilham Aliyev will definitely answer before the international courts… for the crimes he committed not only against the Azerbaijani people but also against the Armenian people. The first task of democratic Azerbaijan will be to punish those who make nations hostile to each other.”
However, this prosecution of outspoken critics of Azerbaijan's government was just one facet of the Aliyev dynasty's quest for control. The Azerbaijani Laundromat, a money-laundering operation, exemplified their adeptness at maintaining financial power. Operating through obscure shell companies registered in the UK, the Azerbaijani Laundromat handled a staggering $2.9 billion over a two-year period.This intricate financial network was not only used to siphon vast amounts of money out of Azerbaijan but also to silence dissent and stifle opposition. Funds from the Laundromat were channeled to purchase silence, further enabling the incarceration of human rights activists, opposition politicians, and journalists critical of the regime.
“At least three European politicians, a journalist who wrote stories friendly to the regime, and businessmen who praised the government were among the recipients of Azerbaijani Laundromat money. In some cases, these prominent individuals were able to mobilize important international organizations, such as UNESCO and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, to score PR victories for the regime,” according to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.
The source of this vast wealth is hidden behind a labyrinth of secretive shell companies. Nearly half of the $2.9 billion stemmed from an account held by a shell company with ties to the Aliyevs, while other significant contributors maintained connections to regime insiders. These revelations only scratched the surface, leaving ample room for further investigation into the true extent of the Azerbaijani Laundromat.
The true extent of this operation remains shrouded in secrecy, hinting at the dark depths of the Aliyev regime's quest for control in Azerbaijan and neighboring countries. As we peel back the layers of this complex web, it becomes evident that Aliyev has meticulously woven a tapestry of power consolidation.