Police in Azerbaijan arrested dozens of civic activists in Baku and Sheki on March 11 in an attempt to snuff-out a Facebook appeal for nationwide, peaceful protests against corruption, civil rights restrictions and alleged government mismanagement. Despite the crackdown, organizers are vowing to press on with their protest movement.
Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Interior announced that 43 individuals were detained on March 11, a day of unsanctioned protests that activists heralded as “The Great People Day.” Twenty cases have been sent to court. The ministry claimed that protestors were arrested for defying police orders and disturbing the peace.
As of late evening on March 11, at least three activists reportedly had received jail terms, ranging from five to seven days.
While “The Great People’s Day” organizers maintain that they had no specific protest plans, participants say they see the arrests as a clear sign of government concern. More than a dozen youth activists and Facebook users were also detained in the days leading up to March 11; four activists, are believed to have been detained for their Facebook appeals for protests.
Such measures only encouraged the March 11 movement, one protester insisted. “Whether or not regime change happens or not, the fear barrier has been broken,” declared Shahveled Chobanoglu, a journalist taking part in one Baku protest action.
Facebook and Twitter users reported dozens of indoor and outdoor protests throughout the country; police were reportedly ready and waiting for arrests at central Baku locations usually used for demonstrations.
Most of the detained protestors were not members of a political party. According to local journalists, however, police acted with particular force against opposition party activists. A video clip distributed on Facebook, for example, shows police arresting a man as soon as he says he is from the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (PFPA), one of the country’s oldest and largest opposition groups.
In Sheki, a town a few hundred kilometers northwest of Baku, PFPA member, Sahib Karimov, was reportedly arrested while walking with friends, all of them holding eggs in their hands. The eggs refer to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s March 9 denunciation of an alleged egg “cartel.” Aliyev claimed that the supposed cartel has pushed domestic egg prices higher. A Sheki court sentenced Karimov to five days in jail.
The egg theme was also present in Baku, where roughly a dozen protestors yelled “Eggs!” and “Freedom!” on downtown Nizami Street. Police, first indifferent to the display, later reportedly detained two of the group’s members.
Another group, in red, on Samed Vurgun Square, attracted greater police attention. Writer Ali Akbar and several activists from the youth organization “Nida” were taken into police custody.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty photojournalist Abbas Atilay claims police officers hit him in the face and stomach when he fell over while attempting to photograph the scuffle. The beating stopped when plainclothes policemen “came and took me away, saying that I am a journalist, and not supposed to be beaten,” Atilay related.
The government has not yet reacted to any reports of police violence.
Aside from arrests, other measures to quash the protests appear also to have been taken. Trains in the Azerbaijani capital’s subway system on March 11 skipped the May 28th station, a stop not far from one popular protest venue. The pro-government news agency APA cited a shut-down of the station’s escalator as the official reason for the station’s closure.
Several Baku State University students told EurasiaNet.org that they were forced to stay in the university until late in the evening on March 11, and warned not to be seen at any protest, under threat of expulsion.
In an interview with Radio Azadliq, pro-government Ana Vatan (Motherland) Party Chairperson Fazail Aghamaly echoed the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party in asserting that opposition parties and foreign governments had organized the March 11 protest actions. He denied that police had used any violence against protestors and advised youngsters to apply for permission to stage future protests.
An opposition protest, also not authorized, is planned for the afternoon of March 12 in Baku.
One of the March 11 organizers, Germany-based blogger Habib Muntazir underlines, though, that the Facebook-inspired event is not over. The group’s Facebook page lists the last day for “Great People Day” as March 28, and adds that “it might be extended.”
Bearing posters proclaiming “Democracy In/Dictator Out,” a handful of Facebook users in Istanbul also staged a tiny protest in support of the Azerbaijani gatherings. Muntazir claims that the group will attempt to organize similar displays in other European cities.
Khadija Ismayilova is a freelance reporter based in Baku and hosts a daily program on current affairs broadcast by the Azeri Service of RFE/RL.