Most political opinion cases from Azerbaijan nowadays involve persecution on account of non-traditional (implied) political opinion. What does this mean? Traditional political opinion is a political opinion that is clearly manifested and recognized as a political activity, including involvement in oppositional movement, membership in a political party, participation in protests, and expressing views through social media and blogs. Non-traditional or implied political opinion is harder to detect. Implied political opinion usually involves some acts of the applicant, which by themselves do not seem to fall under the category of “political” acts, but can be categorized as such, since those acts “imply” political opinion because of the applicant’s disagreement with the government or their representatives. In simpler terms, it means defying orders of the government. For example, an asylum applicant who refused to give false testimony is considered to have manifested implied political opinion. Although the applicant may have had no opinion about the government or political system one way or another, he was afraid to give false testimony and refused to do so. He was then harassed and charged with contempt or falsified accusations. Based on the case law, this applicant is deemed to have manifested his implied political opinion by refusing to obey the orders of the prosecutor’s office, and thus he is eligible for asylum. An applicant may demonstrate persecution on account of implied political opinion, if the applicant shows that the persecutor thought that the applicant was attempting to expose corruption in a government institution and mistreated the applicant as a result, even if the applicant in fact had no such intention.
In the context of Azerbaijan, the cases of “implied political opinion” usually occur as follows. The government of Azerbaijan is ruled by multiple clans. There is a hierarchy of the clans, where the clan of the president Ilham Aliyev is on the top. Most other clans share different levels of hierarchy among each other. Those clans, usually headed by cabinet ministers and lawmakers, each have control and monopoly over different sectors of Azerbaijan’s economy. For example, Minister of Transportation, Ziya Mammadov, together with his son, controls the construction industry and transportation; Minister of Emergency Situations, Kemaleddin Hedarov, rules the country’s import and export of most goods, except for oil; the oil sector belongs to the president’s family, as do many other strategic natural resources of Azerbaijan.
But there are some grey areas and sectors of Azerbaijan’s economy, where the asserted powers of various groups and clans overlap. Therefore, the second and third tier clans in Azerbaijan often clash. These clashes are usually in the form of setting up and removing each other’s subjects (usually friends, relatives, or vassals) from various positions of power in lucrative sectors of the country’s economy. Once in a while, such clashes result in a complete overthrow or annihilation of a large and well-established clan. Then you have smaller clans or sub-clans within larger clans, which also clash.
When clans or sub-clans clash, it often results in sweeping arrests and imprisonment of individuals surrounding the defeated clan. Usually, the process involves engaging operatives of various police units and law enforcement agencies of Azerbaijan, such as Ministry of National Security, Ministry of Internal Affairs, Tax Inspection, Organized Crimes Units, etc., to work up criminal cases against those groups and individuals who have been ordered removed. These law enforcement agencies in Azerbaijan act as institutionalized hitmen. They receive orders from the top to take someone out. In doing so, the hitmen get to keep the trophies, i.e. the extortion money from anyone caught up in the process, their properties and assets. This ensures that the hitmen (law enforcement) remain motivated and get to make a living for themselves.
Some of the individuals who get caught up in the chaos are innocent bystanders, who were unfortunate enough to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Those are typically businessmen, office workers, private companies, business owners, and other common workers, who may have worked or provided services in the sector of the economy controlled by those clans. In the process of building a case against their target, law enforcement in Azerbaijan use coerced testimonies, fake witnesses, forced written statements, and the like. Quite often, “witnesses” themselves become targets of prosecution in Azerbaijan.
Many asylum seekers from Azerbaijan also unknowingly manifest their implied political opinion by refusing to cooperate with the government in business transactions and deals. What does this mean? For example, all successful businessmen or government employees in Azerbaijan are sooner or later asked to cooperate with the government or clans in the government, to participate in various corruption schemes. A businessman may be asked to give kickbacks to government officials to win a bid for a project. A government worker may be asked to participate in transactions involving bribes, money-laundering and cover-ups. As another example, if you are in the business of importing or exporting goods in Azerbaijan and if you are successful, at one point, very soon, you will be asked to under-declare the cost of the goods to pay less in customs duties to the budget and instead to pay kick-backs to customs officials. The same applies to paying business taxes and any other fees or levies that would normally go to the budget. Once in a while, you have an individual who ever so slightly disagrees with the ways these things are done in Azerbaijan. He or she may refuse to share their business profits or refuse to participate in these schemes, refuse to pay a bribe, or simply refuse to do something that the Tax Department or Customs officials asked them to do. Immediately thereafter, such individuals get blacklisted and their businesses, their assets, and their families become targets of persecution in Azerbaijan. The orders come from top to bottom.
Here is how the orders work: If you step on toes of a top official or group, they simply order the “executors” to “take care” of you. Often, the orders are unspoken and the executors have an understanding of what to do. The executors are usually the Ministry of National Security, Ministry of Internal Affairs, Organized Crimes Unit, Tax Department, Drug Enforcement, Prosecutor’s Office, and local Police Departments. Meanwhile, while taking care of the orders, the executors expect personal incentives. This ensures prompt and accurate implementation of the orders. The incentives typically involve financial gains, ransom, shake-downs, and capture of the victim’s property and other benefits. The law enforcement agents usually get paid for their “favors” and get to keep the trophies they may capture in the process – property, ransom, and blackmail proceeds.