President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, has appointed his wife as first vice president, putting her first in line to take over if the president dies or is incapacitated.
The President’s order naming Mehriban Aliyeva to the newly created No. 2 post was published on the presidential website.
The 52-year-old newly appointed vice President, is a deputy chairwoman of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party.
Azerbaijani’s President has been accused by right groups and Western governments of persecuting opposition politicians, human rights defenders, and journalists, and of enhancing his power through elections and referendums that have not been deemed free or fair by international observers.
He also faces allegations of nepotism and corruption within his family.
The positions of first vice president and two lower-tier vice presidents were among the constitutional amendments approved in a referendum in tightly controlled Azerbaijan in September 2016.
The referendum was challenged by opposition politicians and activists who argued that it tightened Aliyev’s grip on power in the oil-rich former Soviet republic of 9.9 million people.
Government critics said Aliyeva’s appointment was illegal. Several opposition activists have been detained in recent weeks, and in some cases sentenced to jail terms of up to a month, in what opponents of Aliyev said they believed was an effort to ensure there were no street protests over the move.
Aliyev- whose country is a source of energy supplies to Europe, which is seeking to decrease reliance on Russia- has shrugged off the accusations of human rights abuses, corruption, and nepotism.
“Aliyeva has been playing an important role in social, political, cultural and international activities for many years,” the president said while presenting his wife and new appointee at a session of his Security Council.
“In general, her multifaceted activities have been successful. I have taken into account exactly these factors when making the decision to appoint her to the post of the first vice president of Azerbaijan,” Aliyev said.
Among the changes made to the country’s constitution during the 2016 referendum, was the law stipulating that if the president becomes incapable of discharging his duties, the first vice president takes over. Before the referendum, it was the prime minister.
The referendum also extended the length of presidential terms from five years to seven years and scrapped an age requirement for candidates, sparking speculation that Aliyev was grooming his son, Heidar, who was 19 years old at the time, to eventually become president.
Azerbaijani lawyer Akif Qurbanov said on Facebook that Aliyeva’s appointment was not legal, citing what he said was existing anti-corruption legislation barring an official’s close relatives from holding office under his or her direct subordination.
In 2002 and 2009, Azerbaijan also held much-criticized constitutional referendums that opposition activists and rights defenders said directly benefited the Aliyev family.
After the 2002 referendum, future referendums required a turnout of just 50 percent to be valid. It also designated the prime minister, instead of the parliament speaker, as the presidential successor.
The 2009 referendum removed the two-term limit of the president and introduced a clause on “the right of personal immunity,” which activists and journalists interpreted as a move to prevent reporters from investigating corruption or covering public events.