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Azerbaijan: Rights Groups Say Post-Election Detainees Tortured

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Azerbaijani rights groups say opposition leaders arrested in the wake of last week's postelection unrest are being abused, both physically and psychologically, and have documented many cases of torture. Despite assurances by the authorities that the arrests are not politically motivated, human rights campaigners say Azerbaijan has entered a period of rare repression.

Prague, 24 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Two days ago, the New York-based nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) expressed concern at the "massive and brutal crackdown" it says Azerbaijani authorities have unleashed against opposition leaders in the wake of the disputed 15 October presidential election.

"Azerbaijan is going through its most serious human rights crisis of the past decade," the group's Baku representative, Peter Bouckaert, said in a statement.

That same day, law-enforcement agencies in Azerbaijan announced they had arrested 400 people in connection with the street battles that pitted opposition activists against police forces on the day following the polls.

More than 60 people held for minor public offenses were released yesterday.

But an equal number of detainees have been charged with organizing and participating in the unrest that, by official accounts, left one civilian dead and dozens of security officials wounded.

Spurred by an unprovoked police attack on election night, hundreds of opposition activists tore through central Baku on 16 October to protest the victory of Prime Minister Ilham Aliyev in an election they claimed was fraudulent. Demonstrators were supporters of Musavat Party candidate Isa Qambar, who maintains he won the election.

Following the unrest, authorities have arrested many opposition leaders, including Azerbaijan's Democratic Party (ADP) Secretary-General Sardar Jalaloglu, Umid Party chairman Iqbal Agazade, and Halq Party leader Panah Huseynov.

Qambar himself has not been detained, but he has been placed under house arrest. Western and Azerbaijani rights groups believe most people arrested over the past week have no connection with the unrest and say the crackdown is politically motivated.

The most prominent opposition figures are being held at the Interior Ministry's infamous anti-organized crime department, a security unit that HRW says "routinely uses torture and other physical abuse against detainees."

Leila Yunus chairs the Baku-based Institute for Peace and Democracy, a nongovernmental organization. She tells our correspondent that, although Azerbaijan last year ratified the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture, all reports she receives indicate physical violence is being used against detainees.

"Since 15 October we've been working almost 24 hours a day to collect all available information [about the arrested people] and I can tell you that the detainees -- first and foremost, the leading members of the opposition -- are being submitted to torture and other unacceptable treatment," Yunus said. "This is not simply a rumor. To give you a single example, yesterday [23 October] two lawyers -- Suleiman Qasimov and Vulgar Hasiyev -- were [for the first time] allowed to see [ADP Secretary-General] Jalaloglu, who was arrested on the 18th. His legs were covered in bruises and he could not move across [the room] without help."

In comments made to RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service a few days ago, lawyer Hasiyev said another of his clients, the head of ADP campaign staff Natig Cabiyev, was also injured.

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

Yunus says one of the favored questioning methods of the Azerbaijani police consists in beating the soles of detainees' feet with a stick -- a form of torture known as "falaka," or bastinado.

"This form of torture is being universally used by the Azerbaijani police. There have been instances in the past when this torture has provoked gangrene in the victim's lower limbs. Sometimes, even, limbs had to be amputated as the result of torture," Yunus said.

Yunus is not the only rights campaigner to claim that people arrested in the wake of last week's mass unrest have been tortured.

Arzu Abdullayeva, the chair of the Azerbaijani Committee of the Helsinki Citizens' Assembly, tells RFE/RL she, too, has information testifying that a number of opposition leaders have been physically abused during their detention.

She says detainees are also subject to psychological torture, with police threatening to retaliate against their next of kin, as has happened with opposition election officials and observers who refused to sign vote tallies they thought were fraudulent.

Another suspected case of physical abuse involved Umid Party leader Agazade.

Agazade, who supported Qambar during the election campaign, last week was deprived of his parliamentary immunity and put under arrest for allegedly inciting the street protests. On 20 October, Agazade appeared on Azerbaijan's ANS pro-government television channel and publicly blamed the Musavat leadership for the unrest.

Addressing journalists on 22 October, Interior Ministry spokesman Sadiq Qezalov said Agazade was "smitten with remorse" and had asked to apologize before his fellow countrymen. Yet, Abdullayeva says she and other rights campaigners suspect Agazade's televised confession had been obtained by force.

"We suspect -- and [Agazade's] relatives also told us -- that he was beaten and tortured. When we raised this question [during a meeting we had] with Prosecutor-General [Zahid Qaralov] and Interior Minister [Ramil Usubov] they told us they could not answer for every [security officer]. However, they said, they were absolutely sure no one had or would have used torture. They also promised that, should we have facts indicating the contrary, they would examine them one by one," Qezalov said.

Yunus, in turn, says she received direct confirmation Agazade had been tortured.

"A man called our office [over the weekend] and said he was an officer from [the Interior Ministry's anti-organized crime department]. He refused to give his name, saying our telephone was being tapped. He said Agazade had been badly tortured and degraded in front of him. He also said an ANS television cameraman had come to the department to tape Agazade's statement and that we would be soon be able to see him on television. And indeed we saw him on television," Yunus said.

Azerbaijan's president-elect and cabinet members have said that all people responsible for the recent mass unrest will be brought to justice. Contrary to what members of his ruling Yeni Azerbaycan (New Azerbaijan) party claimed last week, Ilham Aliyev now says the street protests were not part of an aborted coup, but a mere attempt at "bringing chaos and anarchy" to Azerbaijan.

Some in Baku suspect this new assessment will allow Azerbaijani authorities to avoid accusations of holding political prisoners -- a charge they have always denied. In comments made in Baku on 22 October, visiting Dutch Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer -- who is acting chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe -- said he had warned Azerbaijan's new leader against detaining opponents on political grounds.

"I have told President-Elect Aliyev that I fully understand that if people -- and it's up to the judge to decide -- but if people, in the aftermath of the elections, have committed misdemeanors or crimes by inciting violence they should be punished, but that we should make a clear distinction between those people who might have done that -- mark my words, who might have done that -- and people who are or were going to be detained for other reasons, political reasons. That is, of course, not acceptable," de Hoop Scheffer said.

But human rights campaigner Yunus, who met de Hoop Scheffer during his visit to Baku, says she has no hope Azerbaijani authorities will comply with international human rights and democracy standards.

She says authorities have still not published the names of people arrested since election day and complains that information on the detainees' whereabouts are still being released in dribs and drabs.

Abdullayeva from the Helsinki Citizens' Assembly also insists that authorities must release the names of all people that are being held in custody.

"There are people no one has heard of [since 16 October ] and their families are extremely worried. There are also people whom police are looking for. To publish such lists could help clarify things. We have drawn our own lists, but they do not include all 400 people authorities say they have arrested since 15 October. Police have also summoned another, maybe, 150 people for questioning. But these have not been arrested yet," Abdullayeva said.

As of yesterday, 11 people still remained unaccounted for -- including a schoolboy who disappeared during the street protests -- and there were no indications any of the detainees had been brought before a judge, as Azerbaijani laws require.

Reports also say Baku hospitals have been instructed not to treat civilians wounded during last week's unrest.

Echoing the widespread concerns in Baku, Yunus says Azerbaijan has entered a period of rare political repression: "I've been campaigning for human rights in Azerbaijan for 15 years, but this is the first time I am witnessing such things."

As for Abdullayeva, she believes unnecessary violence will not help Azerbaijan's new leader establish authority.

"If Ilham Aliyev really wants to become president of this country, I would not advise him to start his mandate with such repression and brutality being exerted against prisoners," she says.

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