Azerbaijani opposition politicians and human rights activists claim that the government is muzzling and intimidating its opponents in advance of an upcoming constitutional referendum on abolishing presidential term limits.
The March 18 referendum, if passed, would clear the way for President Ilham Aliyev to remain in office indefinitely. The initiative was proposed in December by the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan (New Azerbaijan) Party, which Aliyev heads. The Azerbaijani constitution now limits presidents to two five-year terms.
Opposition members fear that the change could turn Azerbaijan's presidency into a hereditary position, controlled by the Aliyev family. Already, Azerbaijan has set a precedent for dynastic succession in the former Soviet Union: llham Aliyev was preceded in office by his father, Heidar, who died in 2003 after 10 years as president of Azerbaijan. The elder Aliyev is now portrayed in Azerbaijan as the founding father of the modern Azerbaijani state.
Without presidential term limits, "power could be seized by one family, by one clan and this threatens the national interests of Azerbaijan," charged Isa Gambar, leader of the opposition Musavat Party and a former presidential candidate.
The upcoming vote has triggered alarm among some international organizations that have already been bothered by the decision to ban foreign radio broadcasts on Azerbaijan's FM radio frequency. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive.] The referendum "raises concern about the future of democracy in Azerbaijan," commented Lluis Maria de Puig, president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, in a January 29 interview with the Day.az news website.
Seventeen groups opposed to scrapping presidential term limits have so far been registered, according to the Central Election Commission. But their existence does not mean smooth sailing, some activists claim.
On January 22, police detained Musavat Party Deputy Chairman Fakhreddin Abbasli as he was collecting signatures to register his party as an official participant in the campaign leading up to the referendum, RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service reported. Meanwhile, two members of the opposition Popular Front of Azerbaijan Party were recently arrested in the central Azerbaijani town of Sabirabad while collecting signatures to register to take part in the campaign against the referendum. They were sentenced to a two-month detention for alleged drug possession and resisting arrest.
One human rights activist claims that "hundreds" of other people have also been arrested nationwide. "The persecution is widespread. It includes almost all districts and towns of Azerbaijan," claimed Leyla Yunus, director of the Institute of Peace and Democracy, a human rights monitoring organization, and the coordinator of the group "For Karabakh and the Republic," which is opposing the referendum.
The For Karabakh and the Republic coalition consists of six opposition parties - Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan, Musavat, Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, Liberal Party of Azerbaijan, Umid (Hope) Party, Civil Development Party - as well as the For Azerbaijan movement and 10 non-governmental organizations. Yunus claimed to have information about the detention of 100 individuals in Sabirabad, 25 in Sumgait and 12 in Zagatala in northern Azerbaijan. Police, she added, held detainees from between two to 24 hours. The Musavat Party's Gambar claimed that police have also harassed citizens who signed petitions to register groups that oppose the referendum.
A spokesperson for the Interior Ministry categorically denied Yunus's allegations. "Who are these hundreds of people? They do not have relatives to complain about these illegal actions?" asked the Interior Ministry official, Ehsan Zahidov. "If someone in a teahouse or in the street said that hundreds of people were arrested by the police ... it is incorrect information. It is completely false."
Zahidov confirmed only the two arrests of Popular Front activists in Sabiradad, saying they had been disturbing public order. Drugs were found on the pair during a police search, he affirmed.
One senior Yeni Azerbaijan Party official, Deputy Executive Secretary Mubariz Gurbanly, alleged that opposition supporters were spreading rumors of arrests in order to undermine the legitimacy of the referendum. Government officials are confident that they have a solid majority of support for the abolition of term limits. Lacking the proper organization skills to sway voters, government critics are "are obliged to make up such legends," Gurbanly told the Day.az news website.
Officially, the Central Election Commission has rejected as groundless complaints brought by For Karabakh and the Republic. The group is still consolidating its signatures to submit for official registration.