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Just over a decade ago, Alovsat Aliyev was at the peak of his career as an advocate for migrants in his native Azerbaijan.
His work was meaningful and afforded him a good living. In his spare time he strolled through Baku, marvelling at the capital city’s twisting old streets. On weekends, he took his wife and three children on long drives through the countryside. In small villages, he provided free legal assistance to locals and received homemade meals of chicken, eggs, and cheese in gratitude.
Aliyev was secure and well-connected, having previously worked in the interior ministry for two decades. He came from a prominent family, with one brother who is a well-known publisher and another who leads a party in parliament.
His organization, the Azerbaijan Migration Center, was Azerbaijan’s premier advocacy group for migrant workers and trafficking victims, working closely both with government structures and international donors. When hundreds of men from the Balkans were brought to the country and abused on government-run construction sites, his center raised international attention, advocated for their release, and led a civil suit against the company that hired them.
“We looked at him as our salvation,” one of the workers said. “He tried to give us at least the smallest dose of security and calm.”
But then, a series of events changed his life forever. Last fall, Aliyev found himself in jail — not in Azerbaijan, but in Germany, his new home. Along with several others, he is suspected of participating in a scheme that illegally smuggled dozens of Azerbaijani citizens into the country. The group is accused of accepting thousands of euros in exchange for furnishing them with falsified evidence of political persecution to assist their asylum cases.
Aliyev was released on parole this February after spending several months in jail. His lawyer has said that he has not broken any laws, and no formal charges have yet been filed. But the case is a serious one, following a months-long police investigation that collected extensive evidence, including bank account records, tapped phones, and the testimony of the driver of one of the accused.
In a recent interview, Aliyev said he was not involved and expressed confidence that he would be exonerated once the German police finish their investigation of the evidence. He blamed officials at the Azerbaijani Embassy in Berlin, whose work he had criticized, for falsely denouncing him to the German authorities. The Azerbaijani embassy in Berlin did not respond to reporters’ inquiries about Aliyev’s claims.
Aliyev’s journey highlights the blurred lines and shifting loyalties that characterize the lives of many politically active people in Azerbaijan, an oil-fueled kleptocracy that is also one of the world’s most repressive states. His story also offers a glimpse of the country’s multifaceted and sometimes fractious diaspora community.
Alovsat Aliyev grew up in a large and distinguished family. Like several of his 13 siblings, he had a successful and prestigious career, rising through the ranks of the interior ministry to head its passport division by his thirties.
It was precisely this background, in the words of human rights specialists who worked in Azerbaijan at the time, that made him such an effective advocate for migrants.
“He had a really strong voice,” said Tarana Baghirova, an OSCE employee who collaborated with Aliyev. “He closely cooperated with the state migration service, the anti-trafficking police, and prosecutors. All these actors knew him.”
“That’s the thing,” she said. “He could actually work with a lot of the government agencies, but also oppose them sometimes and at some points.”
Aliyev’s tenacity was on full display when his organization came across one of the largest cases of human trafficking for labor exploitation to take place in modern Europe. Hundreds of Balkan construction workers had been lured to the country with false promises of good pay and decent conditions, only to be underfed, overworked, and — until Aliyev’s intervention — unpaid.
The longtime advocate was disillusioned by how officials he had worked with for years responded to the case, not only dismissing reports of the workers’ mistreatment but sternly advising him to drop his efforts on their behalf. As a result, he said, he suspected early on that powerful state officials were behind the construction projects the workers toiled on. (OCCRP’s investigation, published in April, revealed a link to the family of Azerbaijan’s powerful Youth and Sports Minister Azad Rahimov.)
Aliyev said that even his brother, a member of parliament, told him to leave the case alone. “Sit quietly,” he remembered him saying. “We want to live peacefully in this country.”
But Aliyev wasn’t willing to quit. He called journalists, bombarded prosecutors and interior ministry officials with demands to investigate, and accompanied workers to the offices of SerbAz, the company that hired them, to demand payment. Using new funding from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, his organization launched a civil case against the company that went all the way to Azerbaijan’s supreme court.
In Aliyev’s telling, in the weeks after the case was brought to light, he faced persistent harassment from unknown people who threatened him by phone and followed his car. He said he suspected that interior ministry officials were behind his persecution.
“I had 100 percent information that it was the head of the department on human trafficking,” he said. “During the day, he met with me and all was fine. And at night his people hunted for me. Well, he got an assignment. From whom, who gave the concrete order, I don’t know.”
In response to requests for comment, Azerbaijan’s interior ministry wrote that Aliyev “didn’t file any complaint to the police” about his persecution and made no response to questions about whether the ministry had itself been involved. Aliyev said he had filed complaints several times in written form, though he did not keep copies.
Aliyev weathered the pressure and continued his work. He says his relationships with officials grew more difficult in the wake of the case, with his organization’s employees no longer allowed to visit construction sites to check on labor conditions, for example.
In any case, the space for action was growing narrower. Over the next few years, President Ilham Aliyev (to whom Alovsat is not related) cracked down on Azerbaijan’s independent civil society with a new ferocity.
Critical journalists, activists, and political dissidents were thrown into prison or exile on politically motivated charges. Non-governmental organizations working to address the country’s growing human rights problems were harassed through legal and administrative measures. Even international organizations like the OSCE were forced to exit the country.
By the end of 2014, human rights group Freedom House had documented repression that was “unprecedented in scale, demonstrating both the brutality of the Aliyev regime … and its total imperviousness to international criticism.” The country’s decline into authoritarian rule over the previous decade, the organization wrote, was the worst on the continent.
That was the year Aliyev finally left. In April, several months after giving an interview in which he said he was “tired” of the presidential family’s rule, he turned up in Germany, where one of his sons was already living.
In a previous public interview, Aliyev has said that the reason for his trip was a sudden medical appointment. But he told OCCRP a different, more frightening story. One evening, while playing football with friends in Baku, he said, he received a call warning him that he needed to leave the country “within three hours.”
“I was told there’s a letter, a ban on [my] exiting the country … And they told me, you won’t be able to go through the airport now,” he said. “You can go through Russia.”
Aliyev didn’t want to abandon his family and hesitated, but in the end, his wife convinced him to go. “I didn’t expect her to be so brave, to have such patience, that she would survive all this,” he said. “But she did.” They drove together to the Russian border, and after a quick goodbye, he continued on to Moscow and Berlin.
Aliyev didn’t know the specific reason for the action against him, though he said he had drawn the authorities’ displeasure for his continued criticism of the country’s illegal migration and human trafficking situation. And Azerbaijan’s crackdown against dissidents was then in full swing. Within a few weeks of Aliyev’s escape, human rights activist Leyla Yunus and her husband were prevented from leaving the country, interrogated, and later arrested. That spring and summer, other activists, journalists, and opposition members were also persecuted by the authorities.
Aliyev said he initially planned to stay abroad only until the immediate danger had passed. “My brother has contacts with the government, and I thought he’d be able to solve it,” he said. But shortly after arriving in Germany, he learned that a criminal case had been launched against him back home.
The affair had begun some time earlier, Aliyev said. He had been approached for legal advice by Gulnare Shakinskaya, the ex-wife of a senior interior ministry official.
“She came to me and asked if she could obtain refugee status in Azerbaijan. I said this was impossible, [she] would have to go abroad. The problem was that her [ex]-husband wanted to take her kids away. … Later it turned out that she unlawfully brought her children out of Azerbaijan without their father’s permission.”
Along with a dozen others, Aliyev was accused of helping Shakinskaysa flee the country with money allegedly stolen from her ex-husband’s safe. Several of the other accused parties were convicted, with some spending years in prison.
Recognizing that he could no longer return home, Aliyev applied for asylum in Germany and received it that same year. The rest of his immediate family soon joined him there.
Aliyev said that he believes that the case against him in Azerbaijan is still open, though an Interior Ministry letter sent in response to reporters’ inquiries did not answer questions about the status of his case and made no mention of any outstanding charges.
In April 2016, he was detained for nearly three weeks in Kyiv on the basis of an Interpol arrest warrant that had presumably been filed by the Azerbaijani government, though the origins of the warrant are not publicly revealed.
Aliyev said that he has written numerous times to senior officials, including the president, in an attempt to have the issue resolved and return home.
Aliyev and his family weren’t alone. At the time, the Azerbaijani diaspora in Germany was swelling with an influx of newcomers who sought a freer and more secure life in the European Union.
The country was an especially attractive destination. In addition to its large Turkish community — in which many Azerbaijanis are comfortable due to cultural and linguistic connections — Germany is wealthy and has a strong social compact. Moreover, many German officials knew what was happening in Azerbaijan, creating a receptive environment for those who could claim political oppression at home.
Before long, the country was home to a plethora of opposition-aligned media outlets, political organizations, and individual dissidents, creating a vibrant and sometimes fractious diaspora. But official Azerbaijan and its supporters also have their representatives in Berlin.
“This is a divided community, especially pro-governmental groups and asylum-seekers coming from the opposition,” said an Azerbaijani expat who has long observed his diaspora in Germany. “They are not getting along well with each other. There is a split, lots of mutual accusations and fighting.”
A considerable fraction of Azerbaijani newcomers were not dissidents or activists, simply seeking a better life in a wealthy country. But because of the situation back home, one tempting way to secure German residency was to claim asylum on the basis of political persecution.
As a result, in addition to legitimate asylum cases, there were many applications from people who exaggerated or totally invented their stories of political oppression — and they often found that they could rely on assistance. Of particular note was Musavat, an opposition party that has long been accused of furnishing Azerbaijanis with documents that attested to non-existent opposition political activity.
It was into this story that Aliyev is alleged to have gotten involved.
Perhaps as a way of biding his time and applying his talents, he had kept himself busy in his suburb of Dusseldorf, working as the general director of a translation bureau and continuing his work with immigrants.
“We do translations and offer legal help to Azerbaijanis who want to get medical treatment in Europe, get an education in Germany, or open some kind of company in Germany. Or if they want to make investments in Germany or another European country,” he said. “And of course, every day for 1.5 - 2 hours I do my previous work. That is, I’m a human rights activist.”
Aliyev said that he took no money from any Azerbaijanis seeking asylum, and only accepted payment for consultations with businessmen and others who sought ordinary legal advice.
But last November, he was swept up in a German police operation that followed an investigation into “gang-based smuggling of foreigners, forgery of documents, and money laundering.” According to media reports and several confirmations from those involved, the group is under investigation for allegedly helping Azerbaijanis produce fraudulent paperwork to help their asylum cases in exchange for thousands of euros. No charges have yet been filed, and a spokesman for the prosecutors’ office said that the investigation is ongoing.
After spending several months in jail, Aliyev was released. His specific alleged role is not mentioned in publicly available documents. He has denied the accusations, describing them as the result of false statements against him organized by the Azerbaijani embassy in Berlin.
“I think the embassy wrote [statements] against me, from the name of various people, or anonymously … to German law enforcement,” he said. “And that’s why they surveilled me. For six months, the German police listened to my phone, my mail, what I’m doing. And despite this, so far, no facts [about wrongdoing] have been confirmed. Ninety percent of the documents collected against me have been checked, and so far, there’s no accusation. But we must wait until the end.”
Aliyev’s feelings about his new life in Germany are somewhat ambivalent. He voiced regret that his family had to “start from scratch,” with his two sons, both with higher educations, now working in food and hospitality.
In an interview with reporters, whom he invited to take a walk with him by his favorite lake last summer, he marvelled at the country’s safety and security. But the experienced activist struggles with his role as an outsider. “Every person has to be useful for society,” he said. “And here in Germany, I’m not useful in this society.”
“For 53 years I lived in Azerbaijan. I was a very active person in Azerbaijani society, with a higher education. Everyone who had a higher education knew me, who I was,” he said. “And then I came here, and it was very hard to live. And I know that you very much need to integrate into the society in which you live, but it’s not working out for me. It’s not working out, maybe because I didn’t earn this. Maybe I shouldn’t be a migrant.”
He also expressed restlessness at being away from his home. “Azerbaijani society needs my services now, it needs me,” he said. “So of course I should return to Azerbaijan, I should work for Azerbaijan so that Azerbaijan will become a democratic country.”
His thoughts often return to home. The powerfully built man often has a faraway look in his eyes, as if his thoughts are elsewhere. Looking wistfully at the ducks on the lake, he said they reminded him of himself — and of anyone who has to leave home when conditions turn dire.
With additional reporting by Olga Gein and Kelly Bloss.