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Azerbaijan: Disputed President-Elect Moves To Crack Down On Opposition

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Police in Azerbaijan arrested dozens of opposition supporters over the weekend amid pledges from the country's president-elect, Ilham Aliyev, to restore order after last week's unrest. Rights groups and opposition activists accuse him of using force to maintain his grip on power.

Prague, 20 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Following last week's disputed presidential election, authorities in the Southern Caucasus republic of Azerbaijan have apparently decided to crack down on all forms of political dissidence.

Azerbaijan's independent media and rights groups say police have arrested dozens of opposition activists throughout the country in the past few days, raising widespread concerns that president-elect Ilham Aliyev is using force to maintain his grip on power.

Most arrests took place in the wake of the fierce street battles beginning 16 October, which pitted security forces against opposition activists infuriated by the official outcome of the presidential election.

Preliminary results released last week show Ilham Aliyev -- the son of outgoing President Heydar Aliyev -- won a landslide victory with nearly 80 percent of the vote.

Azerbaijan's Central Election Commission says Ilham Aliyev's main rival, Musavat (Equality) Party chairman Isa Qambar, is trailing with only 12 percent of the vote, while the remaining six candidates share the remainder.

But Qambar claims victory and is accusing authorities of committing massive ballot fraud in order to keep power "in the family."

Qambar's supporters staged massive street protests on 16 October that turned violent following an unprovoked police crackdown on the Musavat Party headquarters on election night. Authorities say one demonstrator was killed during the unrest and claim the clashes left 50 police officers and 20 protesters wounded. Rights groups believe the number of injured may be closer to 300 -- most of them civilians.

Blaming Qambar and his political allies for the unrest, members of Heydar Aliyev's ruling Yeni Azerbaycan (New Azerbaijan) Party are calling for a purge of the opposition. Speaking to reporters in Baku on 18 October, Aliyev threatened to bring his main rival to justice.

"I see the events [of 16 October] as mass unrest and an attempt to push the country back to the early 1990s by those same people who sparked trouble then," Aliyev said. "I also see it as an attempt to generate chaos and anarchy. But this will not happen. Isa Qambar should expect the judgment of the Azerbaijani people as a provocateur and the man who is responsible for the bloodletting." Addressing journalists in a separate venue that same day, the Musavat leader rejected the accusations brought against him and his party and vowed to use all legal means at his disposal to obtain a nullification of the 15 October vote.

"No threats will intimidate me or my comrades-in-arms," he said. "Up until now, we have been pursuing our struggle within the framework of the Azerbaijani constitution, and we will continue to fight peacefully for democracy in accordance with the constitution, regardless of arrests or repression, because we know that we are right."

Authorities say they are detaining nearly 200 people whom they blame for spreading chaos in the Azerbaijani capital. Among them is Iqbal Agazade, the chairman of the Umid (Hope) opposition party, whom lawmakers deprived on 17 October of his parliamentary immunity for allegedly inciting unrest. Umid supported Qambar during the election campaign.

But media reports and rights groups say the arrests are not limited to political activists suspected of actively participating in the protests.

Sahla Ismailova is acting representative of the New York-based Human Rights Watch nongovernmental organization in Baku. She tells our correspondent that many members of regional election commissions who refused to endorse the official results of the presidential vote are among those who've been arrested.

"Under the law, all election commissions members have to sign documents making the results of the vote official. When the votes were being counted, representatives of opposition parties -- be it election commission members or observers -- started protesting massive falsification, and they were not authorized to take part in the counting," Ismailova said. "Police kicked them out of polling stations. That happened in a great number of polling stations. After they got rid of those observers, the authorities were in a position to announce whatever results they wanted. But now they want these observers to endorse falsified documents, and these observers are simply refusing to do so. [Police] come to their homes to fetch them and force them to sign these documents. When they refuse to do so, [police] start retaliating against their families. We have information showing that they did that with 50 people in [the autonomous republic] of Nahcivan."

Ismailova says the overwhelming majority of those arrested are Musavat activists, or individuals who supported Qambar during the election campaign. Among them are members of the opposition Umid and Halq (People) parties, as well as militants of the traditionalist wing of the Popular Front of Azerbaijan. Police have also detained a few members of opposition groups that did not support Qambar, such as the Liberal Party or the reformist wing of the Popular Front.

Fatma Jalaloglu is the wife of Democratic Party General Secretary Sardar Jalaloglu. In an interview with RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, she tells how police arrested her husband on 18 October.

"We had invited a few people to our place. While our guests were preparing to leave, someone knocked at the door and said we were under arrest. My husband told me, 'They are coming after me. Please, pack a few personal belongings that I can take with me.' Then the window suddenly flew into pieces and 10 to 15 masked men -- all clad in black and carrying automatic rifles -- broke into the apartment. Three of the men entered the room where we were and started exerting physical violence against my husband. When I tried to interpose myself, they pushed me back with their rifles. Then they took my husband away," Jalaloglu said.

Many other people also were detained that night in the Azerbaijani capital.

Lawyer Vulgar Hasiyev tells RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service that police also came after Natig Cabiyev, the head of the Democratic Party campaign staff, and took him to the Interior Ministry's anti-organized crime department for questioning. Hasiyev said police authorized him to talk to his client for a few minutes.

"When I met [Cabiyev], he had his hands tied behind his back and could not stand up," Hasiyev said.

Rights group say Azerbaijani authorities have also moved to crack down against opposition media.

Police have blocked off the premises of the "Yeni Musavat" ("New Musavat") daily since election night, forcing the newspaper's editor in chief, Rauf Arifoglu, to seek refuge in the Norwegian Embassy for fear of being arrested.

In statements issued on 17 October, the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) protested the beating of 73 reporters by policemen and supporters of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party in the days that followed the presidential polls. IFJ condemns what it describes as the "criminal assault on democracy and journalists' rights."

Some reporters were also arrested, including Azer Qaracenli of the Baku-based "Avropa" ("Europe") independent weekly. "Avropa's" editor in chief, Fahri Ururlu Qaracenli, yesterday told RFE/RL that he has been unable to get any news from his brother since.

"[Azer] was arrested on the night from the 15th to the 16th [October] near the Musavat Party headquarters. He then managed to call us and tell us he was being arrested. But since then, we haven't received any news from him. We tried to call him [on his mobile phone], but no one answered. He is not listed among people officially arrested, and we cannot find him. Whatever official we turn to, we get the same answer. They tell us they have no one of that name among the detainees," Qaracenli said.

HRW representative Ismailova could not confirm reports saying authorities have ordered Azerbaijan's independent news agencies to severe all ties with opposition parties, in particular with Musavat. But she says authorities appear determined to muzzle nongovernment media and have confiscated all copies of opposition newspapers.

"We live in an information blockade, and it is very difficult to get information on what's going on in the country. We are unable to get a single opposition newspaper because they are no longer on sale. This goes not only for 'Yeni Musavat' but for all opposition newspapers," Ismailova said. "The population cannot get any information. Many [opposition newspapers'] websites are closed or access to them is being denied. What we have left is the state television channel and a few so-called 'independent' television stations, which all support the government's theory under which those who organized the 16 October protests were provocateurs, criminals, and so on. This is all pro-government propaganda."

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) criticized last week's polls, saying Azerbaijan had "missed an opportunity" to conduct a free and fair presidential election.

In a statement released today, the head of the Warsaw-based OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights warned Azerbaijani authorities over the recent wave of arrests. While deploring post-election violence, Christian Strohal said it should not be the occasion for "a general crackdown on the opposition."

The refusal by opposition members to endorse the official results of the vote may explain why Azerbaijani authorities have still not made the final tally public. They had promised to do so within 48 hours of the vote.

The Central Election Commission is promising to release final results later today.