The Swiss embassy in Baku has been secretly sheltering Azerbaijani journalist and human rights activist Emin Huseynov for the past six months, a Swiss national television (SRF) report has revealed.
The SRF current affairs programme Rundschau reported that the 35-year-old critic of President Ilham Aljiev’s regime sought refuge in the embassy because he feared for his life.
Switzerland has guaranteed Huseynov protection “for humanitarian reasons“, the Swiss foreign ministry said in a statement delivered to Rundschau.
“We have been discussing the matter with Azeri government and officials ever since, in order to find a solution,“ it added.
Last year was particularly difficult for free speech advocates in the former Soviet republic. The oil-rich Azeri government escalated its repression against its critics in 2014, with a dramatic deterioration in its already poor rights record, Human Rights Watch said in its annual report.
The Swiss embassy building in the Old City of Baku is approachable directly from the street, one of the reasons it was chosen by Huseymov last August when he was facing imminent arrest, according to Rundschau investigative journalist Serena Tinari.
Huseymov is the founder of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, a non-governmental organisation fighting for press freedom and journalists‘ safety in Azerbaijan.
But Huseymov also had Swiss connections. As part of his pro-democracy activities, he attended an OSCE conference on human rights in the Swiss capital Bern last year, where he met then Swiss president Didier Burkhalter.
The journalist had met Burkhalter once before when the Swiss president was on a state visit to Baku.
Florian Irminger of the Geneva-based Human Rights House Foundation, has been following Huseynov’s case. He told Rundschau that the journalist was arrested in 2008 and 2009 and suffered beatings that amounted to torture.
In one of Huseynov’s last public interviews before going into hiding he expressed pessimism with life under the regime: “We have no positive perspectives for the future. Repression against the freedom of opinion is continuing, including the online media.“
The situation comes at an awkward time for the Swiss Government, which is currently cultivating close economic links with Azerbajian. The Swiss energy company Axpo is playing a key role in the Trans Adriatic Pipeline project which will be delivering gas from the Caspian Sea to Europe.
The pipeline is seen as an important strategic deal for the European Union, which is trying to move away from its dependence on Russian gas.
Meanwhile the Azeri state-run oil corporation SOCAR has taken over Esso petrol stations in Switzerland.