The family of a London-based academic arrested in Azerbaijan has accused western capitals of failing to press for his release because of Baku’s role supplying energy to Europe as it weans itself off Russian supplies, warning the situation is urgent as his health is declining.
Gubad Ibadoghlu, an economist working as a visiting professor with the London School of Economics, was arrested on July 23 after travelling to Azerbaijan for family reasons. He is being held on charges of religious extremism and owning or dealing with counterfeit cash, accusations his family says are fabricated.
“Nobody is helping, because of oil and gas contracts,” Zhala Bayramova, Ibadoghlu’s daughter, said. “We are just screaming and begging . . . and nothing is happening.”
Ibadoghlu, who is still in pre-trial detention, faces up to 12 years in jail if convicted. The 52-year-old academic suffers from diabetes and a heart condition, and his health had rapidly deteriorated in prison, Bayramova said.
His supporters blame the arrest on his academic research into corruption and his role in the political opposition in oil- and gas-rich Azerbaijan, where dozens of government critics have been jailed. They also point to recent work by the academic that raised doubts about Azerbaijan’s high-profile gas deal with the EU.
Brussels and Baku signed an agreement in summer 2022, shortly after the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, to double supplies of Azeri gas to Europe to 20bn cubic metres a year by 2027.
In a blog for the LSE, Ibadoghlu argued that relying on Azerbaijani gas as an alternative to Russian supplies was “unrealistic”. He raised doubts about the feasibility of rapidly increasing output at the country’s four main gasfields, pointing out the need for massive infrastructure investments.
Instead, he suggested, Azerbaijan could end up reselling Russian gas to Europe.
“At present the only viable way for the country to fulfil its obligations to Europe by 2027 would be to purchase additional gas from Russia and Turkmenistan,” Ibadoghlu wrote. “This would be entirely counterproductive given the political rationale of the EU-Azerbaijan energy memorandum.”
Other experts contest his view. “The gas is there,” said Gulmira Rzayeva, a senior visiting fellow at the Oxford Institute of Energy Studies, adding that in contrast with Ibadoghlu’s analysis, her research did not show domestic gas demand in Azerbaijan growing so quickly that it would undermine the country’s export plans.
The crucial factors affecting the agreement were on the EU side, she said, including willingness by individual member states to sign long-term contracts and invest in a fossil fuel project at a time when the bloc was working to meet ambitious climate goals.
Bayramova said she believed her father’s work on corruption was the chief reason for his detention. The professor had just announced plans to set up a scholarship fund for Azerbaijani students, which he said would be funded at least in part by the transfer of assets seized by the UK from prominent Azerbaijanis in anti-corruption investigations.
Livia Paggi, head of political risk at the JS Held consultancy, said: “His strength lies in the fact that he’s a trained economist. He is able to read budget documents, introduce transparency and hold the government accountable.”
Authorities in Baku have also accused the academic of being part of the Gulen movement, an Islamic sect the Turkish government blames for an attempted coup in 2016. He has been charged with the preparation, storage and distribution of religious extremist materials in connection with the group.
By linking Ibadoghlu to the Gulen movement, Baku was likely trying to secure the support of longstanding ally Ankara in the event of international backlash over the arrest of the academic, who has also taught in the US and elsewhere in the west, Paggi said.
The government of Azerbaijan and the EU commission did not respond to requests for comment.
In a statement issued in response to an NGO, British energy company BP, a large foreign investor in Azerbaijan, said: “We do not typically comment on the legal/judicial processes in the countries in which we operate unless in respect of our activities. In the matter of Dr. Ibadoglu, we are very sorry to hear of his medical condition and hope the situation is resolved swiftly, in accordance with international human rights norms as well as national laws.”
The European parliament passed a motion in September condemning Ibadoghlu’s arrest, and a similar motion has been introduced in the UK parliament.
The European Court of Human Rights has also ruled that Azerbaijan, which is subject to the court, must offer Ibadoghlu regular medical examinations. But this, Bayramova said, is not enough without concrete action, such as getting the Council of Europe to invoke an article that demands Azerbaijan explain why it has not implemented the court’s decision.
“My father is dying,” Bayramova said, “and if [the court’s decision] is not implemented to get him at least hospitalised, then my father will die.”
The institutions of the EU, she said, “have great leverage on Azerbaijan. They buy oil and gas from the country . . . The EU states that it is based on human rights values. However, if human rights is not a first condition for business deal for the EU, then where is the proof for that?”