Azerbaijan Bars Main Opposition Candidate from Presidential Poll


Azerbaijan on Tuesday blocked the country's main opposition candidate from challenging strongman president Ilham Aliyev in October elections.

The oil-rich ex-Soviet state's election commission said Oscar-winning screenwriter Rustam Ibragimbekov had been barred from standing in the autumn polls because of his dual Russian-Azerbaijan citizenship.

"The Central Electoral Commission reviewed all the documents presented by Ibragimbekov and considers that there is no legal basis for registering his candidacy for the presidential polls," said Arifa Mukhtarova, the commission's secretary.

"The basis for this decision is his Russian citizenship and his obligations to that country."

Ibragimbekov, who co-authored the Oscar-winning 1994 film "Burnt by the Sun" with Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov, had been put forward as a united candidate by a coalition of Azerbaijan's main opposition parties.

Representatives from the opposition National Council of Democratic Forces (NCDF) coalition lashed out at what they called a "predictable" decision by the Azerbaijani authorities even though Ibragimbekov has initiated the process of renouncing his Russian citizenship.

"The fact that Rustam Ibragimbekov has applied to the Russian authorities and therefore already renounced his Russian citizenship was not enough for the Azerbaijani authorities," said Isa Gambar, head of the Musavat party which is part of the coalition.

"Authoritarian regimes take whatever decision suits them best even if they only have the minimal justification for it," Gambar said.

In the meantime, the NCDF coalition on Friday picked Jamil Hasanli-- a former lawmaker and historian-- as a back-up candidate should Ibragimbekov be refused permission to run.

Gambar said Hasanli's documents have already been handed into the election commission and the opposition does not foresee any legal basis for the authorities to reject his candidacy.

Incumbent Aliyev, who took over in 2003 after the death of his father Heydar, a former KGB officer and Communist-era boss, has faced repeated criticism over his human rights record.

He looks certain to win another term despite most of the country's normally fragmented opposition rallying around a single candidate for the polls.

Human rights activists have accused the authorities of stepping up a campaign to stifle opposition and muzzle criticism in the run-up to the election.

Meanwhile the electoral commission agreed to register another opposition candidate who is currently in jail awaiting trial on charges of fomenting anti-government riots.

Ilgar Mammadov, the head of the Republican Alternative opposition movement, is currently in pre-trial detention until November but could be released if he manages to collect the requisite number of signatures to support his bid.

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