The Supreme Court of Azerbaijan yesterday sentenced former Prime Minister Suret Huseinov to life imprisonment on multiple charges including high treason, creation of unlawful armed groups, attempted coups d’etat and drug trafficking. The high treason charge alone carries the death penalty under the criminal code, but President Haidar Aliev last year replaced capital punishment with life imprisonment (Turan, February 15).
Huseinov, now 40, acquired considerable wealth in the shadow economy while heading a wool-processing factory in Evlakh, western Azerbaijan, in the late 1980s. He personally raised a large military unit and commanded it successfully as a self-declared colonel in the Karabakh war against Armenian forces. Huseinov was deputy prime minister and presidential plenipotentiary for Karabakh in the Popular Front-led government under President Abulfaz Elchibey in 1992-93. However, he fell out with some Popular Front leaders and was ultimately accused of bearing responsibility for Azerbaijan’s military defeats.
At that point, if not earlier, Huseinov cast his lot with Russia and was handed a large Russian arsenal in his own stronghold of Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second largest city. When the Popular Front government attempted to disarm his forces in June 1993, Huseinov ordered his armor columns to Baku, forcing Elchibey and his government to abandon power. In a final act as president, Elchibey called Haidar Aliev back to Baku, hoping to offset a complete takeover by the Russian-oriented Huseinov.
Aliev and Huseinov divided power among themselves as chairman of parliament and prime minister, respectively. In a power struggle which decided the fate of Azerbaijan for years to come, Aliev outmaneuvered Huseinov and set the country on a pro-Western course. Huseinov rebelled in Ganja in October 1994, apparently hoping to repeat a march on Baku. However, army troops loyal to Aliev–by then president–defeated the rebellion, forcing Huseinov to flee to Russia. From there, Huseinov apparently had a hand in the 1995 and 1996 coup and assassination attempts against Aliev by pro-Moscow groups.
The failure of those attempts and the consolidation of Aliev’s rule led Moscow to change tactics and to treat some of the anti-Aliev fugitives as a currency of exchange. As part of that adjustment, Moscow extradited Huseinov to Azerbaijan in 1997. His trial began in June 1998. The apparent end of Huseinov’s political career symbolically ends Azerbaijan’s transition from Russian dependency to national independence and strategic alignment with the West.
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