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Azerbaijan: arrests, criminal charges follow weekend rally

Azerbaijan experienced the latest in a series of rallies on Saturday, with several hundred (or perhaps several thousand, depending on the source) people attempting to demonstrate against the government of President Ilham Aliyev in central Baku. Police arrested as many as two hundred protesters during what was billed as a “Day of Rage” or “Day of Anger,” organized by the so-called “Public Chamber,” the new umbrella group of various opposition parties and other actors.

It’s impossible to say with anything approaching precision how many people showed up.  This is due mainly to the police tactic, evident since the 11 and 12 March events, of dispersing small cells of protesters wherever they attempt to congregate, arresting as many as possible.  This tactic seems to be working – the police were able to deploy to many areas in central Baku on Saturday, breaking up small groups, arresting (and often beating) participants, and herding them into buses.

This RFE/RL article by Farangis Najibullah and Arife Kazimova provides an excellent overview of Saturday’s event, and includes reports that riot police had shut down Fountain Square and closed routes leading to it in an effort to halt the rally before it began.

The Baku Post website put up a map yesterday (5 April) of where pockets of “Day of Rage” protesters formed in the downtown area.  I don’t know what the methodology was, but it’s a useful graphic, and seems to fit the pattern.

The video at the RFE story above appears to show a policeman spraying Mace or pepper spray (what Azerbaijani opposition members have referred to as “tear gas”) into a bus filled with people who had been rounded up and arrested.

Melee during 2 April rally in Baku

The usual administrative punishments of several days in custody were doled out to thirteen protesters, but it appears that harsher measures are being contemplated for at least four more prominent opposition members, who may face criminal charges for organizing “actions resulting in violation of public order and resisting and using force against government officials.”

Arrest during 2 April protest in Baku (photo by Turkhan Karimov)

Three of the four are being held for two months pending trail, and I think we can expect harsh prison sentences, if the usual pattern holds.

I agree with Eurasianet correspondent Khadija Ismayilova who referred to a government “zero tolerance” policy toward opposition protests, fearing widespread social disorder inspired by upheavals in the Middle East.

Taking social media seriously, the government reportedly has questioned five opposition activists in connection with the activities of Elnur Majidli, one of the principals behind the 11 March “Great People’s Day” event, organized largely on Facebook.  Majidli is currently living in Strasbourg and has been charged in absentia with plotting to overthrow the government.

Azadliq newspaper journalist Ramin Deko claims he was abducted on 3 April and advised by three unidentified men to cease his opposition activities.  He says he managed to escape, but was attacked again the following evening.

Seymur Haziyev, a columnist for Azadliq, also says he was attacked and beaten by unknown assailants the previous week.

There is a long history of Azadliq reporters being assaulted, kidnapped, and imprisoned.  The paper is associated with the Popular Front Party, led by Ali Kerimli, one of President Ilham Aliyev’s most vocal critics.

Presidential advisor Ali Hasanov complained to the Trend news agency about the “attitude” of the OSCE and the US embassy, both of whom have called for restraint by Azerbaijani police authorities, respect for freedom of assembly, and due process for those arrested.

Interestingly, Hasanov also told Trend that “foreign instigators” might be lurking in the background, although he added that he was not implicating the US or EU states:

“If we say that there are no foreign instigators of the Azerbaijani opposition, we will be wrong,” he said. But these are not the EU countries, official U.S. Administration, other world countries or international organizations. It may be some forces not supporting the policy of the authorities. It may be some circles, wishing to exert pressure on Azerbaijan, as the country implements fully independent policy….”

Sporadic information I’m getting indicates that the Public Chamber is planning as many as two more rallies this month, but I’ll update later when I get confirmation.

Finally, in an incredibly sad coda, the 15 year-old son of an opposition activist allegedly stabbed and killed a 16 year-old schoolmate today at the high school they attended in the village of Jalalibad, in southern Azerbaijan.  Details can be found here at Azerireport.com and here at Contact.az.

The speculation is that the alleged killer, Vasif Miralamli, had been taunted by his schoolmates after his father, Tazakhan Miralamli, was arrested and beaten during the 2 April rally in Baku.  Tazakhan is the local chief of the Popular Front Party.  Vasif had supposedly been beaten up at school by a group that included 16 year-old Javanshir Hasanli, the son of a local police officer.  Afterwards, Vasif is said to have gone home, found a knife, and returned to school, where he stabbed and killed Javanshir.

 

Author

Karl Rahder
Karl Rahder

Karl Rahder has written on the South Caucasus for ISN Security Watch and ISN Insights (http://www.isn.ethz.ch/isn/Current-Affairs/ISN-Insights), news and global affairs sites run by the Swiss government. Karl splits his time between the US and the former USSR - mostly the Caucasus and Ukraine, sometimes teaching international relations at universities (in Chicago, Baku, Tbilisi) or working on stories for ISN and other publications. Karl received his MA from the University of Chicago, and first came to the Caucasus in 2004 while on a CEP Visiting Faculty Fellowship. He's reported from the Caucasus on topics such as attempted coups, sedition trials, freedom of the press, and the frozen Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. For many years, Karl has also served as an on-call election observer for the OSCE, and in 2010, he worked as a long-term observer in Afghanistan for Democracy International.

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