After seeing its October 1 and September 25 rallies dispersed by police, the opposition bloc Azadlig (Freedom) changed tactics on October 9 and expanded the area covered by protestors to multiple different locations. Authorities have refused to sanction opposition rallies in central Baku, saying that the gatherings threaten public order. International organizations have urged the government in the past to respect the right to freedom of assembly, but have made no statement to date about the latest demonstration. Human rights activists and the opposition have tagged the police crackdown a violation of the right to freedom of assembly and of candidates to address voters during the parliamentary election campaign.
About 30 people were wounded in Sunday's melee and some 52 were arrested, according to Turan news agency. Among those reportedly detained are several parliamentary candidates and staff members who, under Azerbaijani election law, carry immunity from prosecution.
Ten journalists were reported wounded during the rally. Idrak Abbasov, a correspondent for the Russian-language daily Zerkalo (Mirror), was severely beaten and later hospitalized. Abbasov received his injuries while wearing a bright blue jacket marked "Press" that had been distributed by the Azerbaijan Press Council to identify media during public actions. Ramiz Najafov, the editor of the opposition Bozgurd newspaper, was admitted to the intensive care unit of Musa Nagiyev Hospital with wounds received while covering the rally.
Based on the observations of EurasiaNet.org reporters on the scene, law enforcement agencies responded far more severely than at previous unsanctioned rallies.
The clash began late in the afternoon after the three Azadlig member parties the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan, Musavat Party and Democratic Party of Azerbaijan took up positions in three different downtown locations. Opposition parties relied on small mobile groups of activists to reach demonstration spots and sidestep police. An earlier announcement by the Musavat Party that their rally would be held in front of Narimanov metro station prompted police and Interior Ministry troops to deploy at the site, only to learn that the protestors were actually gathering in Nizami Street. Meanwhile, police on Azadliq Avenue, a shopping thoroughfare, blocked Popular Front activists trying to reach 28 May metro station, three blocks away. At the same time, riot police blocked chanting Democratic Party protestors from occupying nearby Fountain Square, a popular meeting place.
Police, armed with riot shields and truncheons, were reported to have broken windows and upset tables and chairs in tea houses that sheltered fleeing opposition activists. One opposition advisor claimed that police had used brass knuckles to beat protestors; other reports cite the use of iron rods. One Popular Front activist, who identified herself as Dilshad K., carried a copy of the Koran with her in the hope that it would stop police from beating her. The preventive measure was not successful.
While opposition members and human rights activists have decried the violence used against protestors, many carrying carnations as a symbol of the Azadlig alliance, Interior Minister Ramil Usubov told journalists on October 10 that nearly three dozen police suffered injuries as well in the fracas.
"About 35 policemen were wounded during the clashes, and the only reason why the authorities do not start a criminal investigation against the opposition activists is their [the authorities'] will to avoid complaints about restrictions during the election campaign," Usubov said.
The interior minister dismissed as "groundless" reports about police troops' excessive use of force against protestors. "Freedom of expression does not mean that you can hold rallies when and where you want."
One pro-government MP blamed the opposition for trying to destabilize the situation in Azerbaijan, noting that alternative venues for the opposition's rallies had earlier been offered outside of the city center. "It is not democracy. Democracy is the state laws," the online news site Today.az quoted Zalimkhan Yagub as saying. "Why are they [the opposition] interested in going to the center of the city? It is not the police's fault if they want to restore order. Only those who want destabilize the situation bear responsibility for any violence."
Popular reactions to the violence were mixed. While some older Azerbaijanis criticized the opposition for disrupting the weekend routine of ordinary citizens, 57-year-old Gulara Zaynalova, who did not attend the opposition rally, said that she did not understand why rallies in the city center are banned. Under former Soviet President Mikheil Gorbachev, she noted, "[a]nti-Soviet rallies were held in the front of the government headquarters and police never prevented people trying to reach the central square."
Clashes in the center of Baku came following a breakdown in dialogue between the opposition and the authorities, initiated by the US ambassador to Baku, Reno Harnish, after the first failed attempt at an unsanctioned rally on September 25. The resulting dialogue, however, led to no results. The authorities offered five venues for the rallies, all in the city outskirts, and all rejected by the opposition, which insisted on squares in central Baku. Government representatives did not appear at the second round of talks on September 30, held at the mission office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, saying that there was no reason to continue negotiations.
"The opposition did not respond adequately to our gesture. All attempts to hold rallies in [a] central square will be prevented," Ramiz Mehdiyev, head of the presidential administration, said at the time.
Statements from the European Union and US State Department that urged caution and restraint prior to the rally appear to have had little obvious effect. Ahead of the rally, Ali Hasanov, head of the presidential administration's political department, told journalists, as quoted by local media, that "stability in Azerbaijan is much more important than the country's international image. Why do we need [this] image if we cannot keep stability and order in the country?"
Eldar Zeynalov, director of the Human Rights Center, countered that police actions could do more to produce "idea martyrs" than strengthen stability. With each successive rally, he noted, increasingly radical statements from opposition leaders have been featured in local media.
In an October 10 interview in the pro-opposition newspaper Azadlig, Popular Front Party leader Ali Kerimli stated that the opposition will continue its struggle for Baku's central squares and "whatever falsifications the authorities will commit, it will end with a change of regime." Isa Gambar , leader of the Musavat Party, another Azadliq member, was quoted by the Turan news agency as saying that people will continue to go out into the streets to show "that they are not afraid" of the authorities. Predicted Gambar: "The opposition will continue its fight till the end."
Khadija Ismayilova and Shain Abbasov are freelance journalists based in Baku.