A youth opposition leader in former Soviet Azerbaijan has been arrested for planning to overthrow the government in a plot allegedly hatched by the US' National Democratic Institute (NDI), Armenian secret police and the local opposition, prosecutors said late Thursday.
Opposition leaders denounced the arrest of Ruslan Bashirli as an attempt to smear their groups, and comes amid increasing government pressure on opposition political parties ahead of parliamentary elections in November.
Ruslan Bashirli, the charismatic leader of the Yeni Fikir youth movement which has called for President Ilham Aliyev's ouster, was arrested on charges of attempting "to take power by force," the General Prosecutor's office said in a statement.
Bashirli was arrested on Wednesday after a member of Yeni Fikir informed the authorities that the group's leader had taken 2,000 dollars (1,600 euros) from operatives of Azerbaijan's rival Armenia at a secret meeting in neighboring Georgia, the statement said.
AzTV, an Azerbaijani state-owned network, broadcast footage allegedly shot in Georgia of Bashirli sitting in a room with three men where he accepted a wad of cash from them.
Bashirli told the Armenians he represented forces "acting on the instructions of the National Democratic Institute of the USA," and had received "specific instructions from representatives of this organization to prepare a revolution in Azerbaijan," according to the statement.
NDI is a US non-governmental organization dedicated to promoting democracy in developing countries, but has been criticized by regimes in the former Soviet Union who accuse it of supporting the revolutions that have swept Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan over the past two years.
Yeni Fikir's deputy head Fikret Farmazogly confirmed Bashirli's arrest but denied the group's involvement in an Armenian funded plot to overthrow the government.
"This is yet another one of the authorities' games, this event was organized by the Ministry of National Security," Farmazogly told AFP.
Farmazogly said he suspected the Yeni Fikir informant was an Azerbaijani security services agent, but would neither confirm nor deny weather Bashirli had accepted money from the men shown in the footage.
Prosecutors also said Bashirli's plans were being backed by one of Azerbaijan's leading opposition parties, the National Front of Azerbaijan Party.
"This is an attempt by the authorities to discredit the youth movement," said Ali Kerimli, who leads the National Front party. "They are trying to prevent the youth from fighting for democratic freedoms."
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