Human Rights Watch (HRW) has criticised Azerbaijan for what it claims was the violent dispersal of two peaceful protests in central Baku on October 19 and 20.
Police rounded up dozens of peaceful opposition and civic activists, beating and roughing them up while forcing them onto buses and into police cars, HRW said in a report on events in the tightly controlled country.
Among those detained was the leader of the opposition Popular Front Party, Ali Karimli. He reportedly sustained numerous injuries at the hands of law enforcement officers while detained for several hours. Several other detained opposition activists told HRW that they were severely beaten in police custody.
“Once again, the Azerbaijani government has shown complete disregard for people’s right to hold peaceful protests,” said Giorgi Gogia, associate Europe and Central Asia director at HRW. “The authorities should immediately release all protesters and investigate any allegations of ill-treatment by law enforcement.”
The National Council of Democratic Forces, a coalition of opposition parties and activists in Azerbaijan, organised the first demonstration in central Baku for October 19. They called for the release of political prisoners and for free and fair elections and protested growing unemployment and economic injustice. A day later, several dozen women’s rights activists held a protest over violence against women and femicide, and killings by domestic partners.
The authorities had turned down requests to hold the protests in central Baku, where there is essentially a blanket ban on demonstrations.
In the early hours of October 19, the Baku metro stopped operating at three stations in the city centre and police cordoned off wide areas in the vicinity, blocking main roads leading to it, HRW said. Media and activists also reported that the internet was cut in the area and mobile phone coverage was spotty.
Several hundred protesters still made their way to the city centre around 3 pm, when the rally was to start. They chanted “Resign” and “Freedom.” Uniformed police and security officials in civilian clothes almost immediately moved in without warning to forcefully restrain protesters, twisting their arms in apparently painful positions, and violently dragging and carrying them to police vehicles, HRW said.
The forcible treatment and arrests were seen on numerous videos, widely available on social media, it pointed out.
According to the police, they detained 60 of the approximately 220 people who participated in the unsanctioned demonstration on October 19, releasing 42 with a warning, and sending 18 cases to administrative courts.
The authorities also detained at least 10 senior opposition party members ahead of the October 19 rally. Among them was a prominent opposition journalist, Seymur Hazi, who was detained on October 17 and sentenced the same day to 15 days of administrative detention.
Police detained Karimli and several others shortly after he left his apartment at about 3 pm. Police separated Karimli from others and put him on a different bus. Karimli was released around 11 pm with several stitches on his head and multiple bruises on his face, HRW said. He said in a media interview that several police officers had pulled his hair and banged his head against the side of the bus twice. Then he was transferred to the Khatai district police, where, he said, law enforcement personnel continued to abuse him, including one officer who used his foot to try to choke Karimli as he lay on the floor, according to HRW. He reportedly said police filmed the beating, demanding from him to state on camera that he would stop his criticism of the government.
In a statement on October 21, the prosecutor’s office claimed that Karimli resisted arrest, beat two police officers, and sustained the injuries to his forehead as he resisted arrest.
On October 19, the Internal Affairs Ministry and the Prosecutor’s Office issued a warning about holding unsanctioned rallies, saying that law enforcement agencies “will be authorized to prevent illegal actions and take serious measures, including criminal liability against those breaking the law.”
On October 19, the European Union issued a statement calling on Azerbaijani authorities to release all those detained and to ensure that freedom of assembly can be fully exercised in line with the country’s international obligations.
In a statement, the Council of Europe human rights commissioner, Dunja Mijatovic condemned “the disproportionate use of force,” urging the authorities to ensure “effective investigations into allegations of ill treatment.”
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