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Azerbaijan: Police Violence Mars Election Campaign

Azerbaijan: Police Violence Mars Election Campaign

Prospects for Free Parliamentary Elections in Doubt

Mounting police violence against members of the political opposition in Azerbaijan casts serious doubt on the government’s commitment to ensuring free and fair parliamentary elections on November 6, Human Rights Watch said today.

Azerbaijan’s international partners, particularly the United States and European Union countries, should forcefully condemn the attacks taking place during the election campaign, which began in September. These countries should also make clear that a repeat of the human rights abuses that marred the 2003 presidential elections would carry real consequences, including cuts to financial assistance benefiting the government.

The latest attack against political opposition members took place on October 1, when police beat and arrested opposition party members who attempted to hold a pre-election rally in the center of Baku, the capital. A Human Rights Watch researcher observed police beating opposition activists with batons and saw several injured protesters. One protester was bleeding from the head and had marks across his back consistent with having been beaten with a baton. He told Human Rights Watch that he was one of a number of opposition protesters that the police had attacked and beaten.

“The Azerbaijani authorities are creating an environment of intimidation that flies in the face of the idea of free and fair elections,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “The international community must firmly condemn the attacks and make it clear that freedom of assembly is a fundamental human right that must be respected.”

On October 1, prior to the scheduled start of the rally at 4 p.m., police blocked off the streets surrounding May 28 Square, the central Baku meeting place designated by the opposition Azadliq block for its unauthorized rally. From early that morning, police began to detain opposition members. Ali Kerimli, head of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, estimated that more than 150 opposition members were detained that day. Human Rights Watch spoke to several international observers who saw the police filling buses with people they had detained from among the crowds in the city center that afternoon. The detainees included at least four opposition candidates for the election. Human Rights Watch received information that some of the detainees were sentenced to 10 days in prison for failing to follow police instructions and that the authorities did not allow defense lawyers in court.

This is the second week running that the opposition in Azerbaijan has tried to hold an unauthorized rally in the center of the capital. The government has authorized rallies in locations far from the city center, which the opposition has rejected. During the first attempted unauthorized rally, on September 25, at which police also beat and detained opposition members, the government offered to negotiate over locations. However, the negotiations quickly broke down, with the government failing to send representatives to a meeting hosted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to discuss locations for an opposition rally on September 29.

“If the Azerbaijani government wants to convince anyone that it is holding elections in line with international standards, allowing the opposition to hold pre-election rallies in the city center would be a good place to start,” said Cartner.

Human Rights Watch has documented other restrictions on freedom of assembly during the election campaign. Candidates for opposition parties have told Human Rights Watch that police and local authorities regularly interfere when they want to meet with voters in their constituencies. In one example, a sitting member of parliament and candidate for the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, Jamil Gasanli, told Human Rights Watch that local authorities denied him permission to hold a meeting on September 21 with voters from his constituency, even though the meeting was to be held in a place previously designated by the local authorities for such meetings. According to Gasanli, approximately 100 police officers dispersed the crowd that had gathered for the meeting. Police also detained two of his election campaign staff, he said.

In related events, Said Nuri, a member of Yeni Fikir (New Thinking), an opposition-aligned youth movement, has remained in detention without charge for three weeks since his arrest on September 12. Shortly after his arrest, his health deteriorated due to a long-standing anemic blood condition, and he was hospitalized. Police are currently guarding him in hospital and restricting access to him. According to his lawyer, Yaver Huseyn, Nuri has not been formally charged, but the police will not allow his relatives to take him home.

Prosecuting authorities accused Nuri of attempting to violently overthrow the government, basing these accusations on his attendance at an international conference on democracy in Poland. He is one of three members of Yeni Fikir now in custody, facing similar accusations. The other two— Ruslan Bashirli, the head of the organization, and Ramin Tagaev—have been formally charged with attempting to violently overthrow the government and have been remanded in custody for three months. The cases against the three men appear to be politically motivated.

Following Bashirli’s arrest, the government apparently launched a campaign against Yeni Fikir and the APFP, which is closely associated with Yeni Fikir. According to Bashirli’s lawyer, Elchin Gambarov, authorities put pressure on Bashirili to denounce Ali Kerimli, the leader of the APFP, on television.

“It’s time for the international community to insist that arbitrary arrests, beatings and intimidation will not be tolerated,” said Cartner. “The United States and the EU should react now to these clear signs of pre-election repression instead of waiting for the situation to deteriorate even further.”

Human Rights Watch noted that a common fear among Azerbaijanis was that the United States would not react to human rights abuses in the country because Washington prioritized stability for its oil investments.

“The U.S. needs to convey, loud and clear, that future relations with Azerbaijan depend on the government’s rights record,” said Cartner. “The forthcoming elections should be a litmus test in this respect.”

Azerbaijan has a history of elections that breach international standards. The OSCE concluded that the October 2003 presidential election was fraudulent. It was followed by violent protests to which police and other law enforcement agencies responded with excessive force, killing at least one protester. Mass arrests followed. Human Rights Watch documented police torture of detainees, including the use of beating, electric shock and threats of rape during the 2003 elections. More than 100 opposition members and supporters were imprisoned after trials that breached international standards.

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