BAKU - Azerbaijani President 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.
Aliyev's order naming Mehriban Aliyeva to the newly created No. 2 post was published on the presidential website on February 21.
Aliyeva, 52, is a deputy chairwoman of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party. She is also the head of the Heidar Aliyev Foundation -- a large nongovernmental organization named after her husband's father, who ruled newly independent Azerbaijan with an iron fist from 1993 until 2003. He died in December 2003, two months after steering his son into the presidency of the Caspian Sea country.
Ilham Aliyev, 55, has been accused by right groups and Western governments of persecuting opposition politicians, human rights defenders, and journalists, and of enhancing his power though 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.
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, presenting his wife and new appointee at a session of his Security Council on February 21.
"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.
Age requirement scrapped
The constitution now stipulates 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 anticorruption legislation barring an official's close relatives from holding office under his or her direct subordination.
Two activists of the opposition Popular Front were detained on February 20 and sentenced to 30 days of administrative arrest, party official Gozal Bayramnli told RFE/RL, and a third activist received the same sentence on the same day.
According to Mehman Aliyev, director of the Turan news agency, at least 10 people have been detained this month and sentenced to up to 30 days of administrative arrest.
'Thwarting' government opponents
Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist with RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, said on February 21 that the arrests were carried out to thwart government opponents who might "dare to protest" Aliyeva's appointment.
Ismayilova spent 17 months in prison in 2015-16 over financial-crimes charges that she and supporters say were government retaliation for her extensive reporting on alleged corruption involving Aliyev and his relatives.
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.