After the disputed presidential elections of last October, the Norwegian Ambassador to Azerbaijan Steinar Gil has faced vicious attack from pro-government media, government officials and parliamentary deputies of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, as a result of his open support for democracy, human rights and tortured opposition figures. (16 July 2004)
The respected and unwanted
The Norwegian Ambassador Mr. Gil has been a target of Azerbaijan’s state-controlled media the days following last October’s post-election riots in Baku. Mr. Gil, who wins unanimous praise from ordinary Azerbaijanis, has a very positive reputation and is very much respected among the local NGOs and opposition activists in Azerbaijan. Due to the Ambassador’s forthrightness and outspokenness, some government-minded parliamentarians launched a blackening campaign towards him. In a parliament session a group of the leading members of the ruling party demanded that Mr. Gil be declared persona-non-grata.
The raison d´être for attacks
The background for the conflict between the government and Ambassador is that two opposition leaders sought and were granted refuge at the Norwegian Embassy by Mr Gil in the course of the disturbances and wave of arrests following the doubtful presidential elections of last fall. The Ambassador is blamed for having given sanctuary in the wake of the post-election clashes to two prominent opposition figures – Rauf Arifoglu, editor in chief of the opposition daily “Yeni Musavat” and Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, Imam of Juma mosque. They both left the Embassy when the regime agreed to refrain from mistreating them, though both were eventually arrested. While Ibrahimoglu received five years of suspended sentence for his alleged involvement in the riots, Arifoglu still is facing trial at Azerbaijan’s Heavy Crimes Court along with six other opposition leaders.
Apart from the other Ambassadors operating in Azerbaijan, the Norwegian Ambassador did not turn a blind eye to the Azeri government’s suppression on opposition activists. In addition to the detentions of opposition activist after the elections, there were also credible reports of opposition supporters being obliged under duress to make public confessions or denunciations concerning opposition post-election plans. There were also further credible reports of politically motivated firings, intimidation of opposition supporters and their families, and the vandalism and closing of opposition political party offices in several districts.
The fraud elections
International observers witnessed significant irregularities during voting and widespread fraudulent practices during the counting and tabulation of election results, notably ballot stuffing and tampering with protocols. The international Election Observation Mission, which monitored the elections widely, said the poll had been blighted by violence, slanted media coverage, intimidation, fraud and ballot rigging. It also blamed police for violence and excessive use of force. Hundreds of opposition activists were jailed and tortured just aftermath the elections, as the opposition people were protesting the rigged election results.
Support from Norwegian gov´t
Mr. Gil was the only active Ambassador, who urged the authorities to respect the human rights in Azerbaijan and has blocked many possible detentions of opposition activists. Gil himself noted that he had set his activity and made comments on fraud elections in full coordination with his government in Oslo. During his visit to Baku the State Secretary of Norway Kim Traavik told that his government is concerned about the violations that marred the 15 October presidential election and the “police brutality” against opposition protesters that followed. Traavik said he told Azerbaijan´s Deputy Foreign Minister Khalaf Kalafov that the country “is not fulfilling its commitments to the Council of Europe and the OSCE.” Mr. Traavik went on saying that the Norwegian government fully supports the activities of its Ambassador to Azerbaijan Steinar Gil. The incumbent President Ilham Aliyev refused to meet with Traavik because of the latter´s statement of support for Norwegian Ambassador to Azerbaijan Steinar Gil. Through its state oil firm Statoil, Norway is a major investor in Azerbaijan.
Latest made-up allegations to Ambasador
In nowadays, Mr. Gil has faced one more accusation made by a group of government-minded mullahs. A group of government-minded and trained mullahs condemned Norwegian Ambassador, claiming he he insulted believers by visiting Baku’s Juma mosque on Jule 4 while drunk.
They allege that the intoxicated ambassador verbally attacked the people, who were worshiping at the mosque, saying that “you are cowards; you don´t defend your rights”. Assessing the incident as the humiliation of local Muslims´ dignity by a foreign diplomat, the mullahs have adopted an appeal to the Azerbaijani President and Foreign Minister requesting the incident be investigated and urgent steps be taken with regard to the ambassador´s beha-vior.
Commenting on the incident, Ambassador Gil said it was simply hearsay unworthy of further discussion.
A mullah from the Caucasus Clerical Board also claimed that the Norwegian Royal Embassy supports Christian missionary activities in Azerbaijan. another previuos charge against to the ambasador was that he has written a book about Armenia and put the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan under doubt in his articles in the book. Azerbaijan is bordering with Armenia, which has occupied the 20 percent of Azerbaijan territory in aerly 1990s and still ceasifire regime exists between two countries.
Juma Mosque pandemonium
The controversy surrounding the Juma mosque community, led by Imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, whom Mr. Gil gave an asylum after the elections, goes back to March, when authorities first issued the eviction order. The Court of Appeal of Azerbaijan upheld the eviction, but authorities took no action to enforce the order until June 30, when police surrounded the mosque and reportedly roughed up worshipers. Ibrahimoglu’s followers continued to resist the eviction effort. On July 4-5, police clashed with worshipers who visited the mosque for evening prayers. Dozens suffered injuries and at least nine arrests were made during the incidents, according eyewitnesses. Some of the detainees were reportedly severely beaten in custody. The Norwegian ambassador has always kept a close eye on the developments surrounding the Juma Mosque. He has personally attended the court trials on the eviction of the Juma mosque community from the mosque with the same name. Such behaviour of the Norwegian ambassador made the Azeri authority worry and concerned. Consequently, the government launched such a blackening campaign towards him and tries to find a way to expel the distinguished Ambasaador from Azerbaijan.
“He is not alone”
Such ill-treatment of Azerbaijani authorities has mobilised all the human rights organisations in Azerbaijan to support the Ambassador. The human rights defenders urged the Azerbaijani government to put an end to dirty campaign against to the Norwegian ambassador. Shahla Ismailova, the director of the local NGO “WARD” says: “It makes sense to notice, that the Norwegian Ambassador has become the best example of democracy in Azerbaijan since 2003 Elections and was notified for his courageous performance during his diplomatic activity”. According to Fuad Hasanov, the director of “Against Violence” Human rights center, Azerbaijani government and Caucasus Clerical board should request for forgiveness from the Ambassador, who has an incredible and undeniable role in the promotion of human rights and civil society in Azerbaijan. Novella Jafaroglu, the prominent human rights activist thinks that such an embarrassing and dirty campaign against to the Ambassador is ordered and coordinated by some top officials at the government. “He is not alone. we will support him to the end”, says Jafaroglu.