Tension in Azerbaijan appears to be escalating following a police crackdown on an unsanctioned rally in Baku that resulted in numerous injuries and in 30 activists receiving jail terms.
Although protesters were relatively few in number -- police estimated 350; opposition members claimed 4,000-5,000 – the methods used to disperse the two-hour protest April 2 suggested that President Ilham Aliyev’s administration, wary of the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East and North Aftrica, has adopted a zero-tolerance policy for public displays of government criticism. At least two people were seriously injured, and more than 160 activists detained both during the rally, and in the week preceding the event. Prison terms handed out ranged from three to 13 days.
Police in full riot gear delivered kicks and baton blows freely as they cleared protesters from the area around Fountain Square, a popular downtown site for Saturday shopping and strolling. Authorities also used rubber bullets, tear gas and stun guns against participants, human rights monitors claimed. In addition, police officers used force in trying to keep photographers and journalists away from the scene. Rally attendees had targeted the area after rejecting the city’s offer of a protest site on the outskirts of Baku. The protest was organized by the Public Chamber, a grand coalition of non-partisan politicians, opposition political party representatives and non-governmental organization (NGO) activists.
A video report, prepared by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty contradicted official accounts. One sequence showed helmeted riot police spraying tear gas inside a bus that held detained protesters. Independent video reports, meanwhile, showed young opposition activists kicking the bus, demanding that the detainees be released. Others threw stones at the windows. No arrests were made, according to eyewitnesses.
Following the protest, detained activists had to endure cramped conditions, said Anar Mammadli, head of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center, as well as a member of a Rapid Reaction Group created by NGOs to provide support to detainees and victims of police violence. “The number of detained people exceeded the capacity of the relevant police stations,” commented Mammadli.
At the Sabayel police precinct, for example, more than 50 people were kept in a detention cell meant for eight people, Mammadli claimed. “People didn’t sit for several hours. They were kept in a very narrow place with no fresh air.”
Not only rally participants were detained. At least one opposition politician, Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (PFPA) Deputy Chair Hasan Kerimov, was taken into custody. Arrested at his home on the day of the rally, Kerimov later was taken from a police station to a hospital after reportedly suffering from chest pains.
Neither PFPA Chairperson Ali Kerimli nor fellow opposition leader Isa Gambar, head of the Musavat Party, appeared at the rally. Both Gambar and Kerimli were summoned to meet with Baku police on April 1, prior to the protest.
Reports have circulated in Baku that Gambar’s 24-year-old son, Ilkin, was taken by the army to the Karabakh frontlines, supposedly as retribution for opposition involvement in organizing the April 2 rally. Gambar told EurasiaNet.org that he could neither confirm nor deny the report.
In an April 2 statement, Amnesty International Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia John Dalhuisen condemned the police measures used to disperse the rally, arguing that “the Azerbaijani government cannot credibly maintain that it is making progress in its democratic development whilst systematically clamping down on social movements and political gatherings that it disapproves of.”
Government officials did not directly address the allegations concerning the excessive use of force against protesters. Mubariz Gurbanli, deputy executive secretary of the governing Yeni Azerbaijan Party, however, told the pro-government Trend news agency that the low number of rally participants indicated that the “radical opposition has neither supporters, nor social support.”
While the turnount was lower than many observers expected, some characterized the rally as a success for government critics. “More and more people are now on the streets and watching [the protests], whether online or from their houses,” said Elkhan Shahinoglu, head of Baku’s Atlas research center. The Public Chamber, the opposition consortium, has tentatively scheduled another rally for April 16.
The government maintained that law-enforcement officers were just trying to preserve order. The Ministry of Internal Affairs claimed that 24 policemen were injured by opposition activists, and that the windows of neighborhood shops and banks were smashed.
To illustrate that mayhem, the state television channel AzTV showed “citizen vox-pops” that condemned the “violence by the opposition.” In one such clip, police are shown politely helping a women avoid the rally melee. The women appeared in a subsequent interview to chastise rally participants for disorderly conduct, including the damage done to local businesses. Before the April 2 rally, AzTV broadcast interviews with Baku residents criticized the opposition for “trying to destroy stability on the order of foreign powers.”
In a radio interview with this reporter for RFE/RL, Gulsel Safarova, head of the pro-government AGAT (Organization of Azerbaijani Youth’s Integration to Europe) acknowledged that members of her organization gave interviews that were broadcast on state television. Those interviewed were supportive of the government, but their group affiliation was not disclosed to viewers. In addition, the interviews were done not in a television studio, but at locations around Baku, creating the impression that a random selection of city residents were airing their opinions. Safarova defended AzTV’s actions. “We are Baku residents, aren’t we?” she said. An AzTV spokesperson declined to comment on why the station had not disclosed the AGAT members’ affiliation.
Khadija Ismayilova is a freelance reporter in Baku and hosts a daily program on current affairs broadcast by the Azeri Service of RFE/RL.