Prague, 23 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A leading human rights watchdog group is accusing Azerbaijan's authorities of arresting and torturing political opponents following October's disputed presidential election.
In a new report, Human Rights Watch says the government carried out what it called well-organized electoral fraud to ensure Ilham Aliyev succeeded his father, Heidar, as president. It says the government then used violence that broke out after the election as a pretext for what it calls a massive crackdown on the opposition.
The group says it also has documented police torture, including the use of electric shock. Rachel Denber is acting executive director of the group's Europe and Central Asia Division.
"More than 1,000 people were arrested after the elections," she said. "These were people who had been opposition leaders, opposition supporters, people who had been official election workers at precincts where there was election fraud and the election workers refused to sign falsified results. There were people who were suspected of supporting the opposition. The government used the violence that erupted after the elections as a pretext to really cast a very wide net."
Human Rights Watch says it has documented "numerous" cases of police torture, particularly at the Interior Ministry's organized crime unit. Opponents were beaten, tortured through electric shock, or threatened with rape.
"Azerbaijan is in a serious human rights crisis right now," Denber said. "It's probably the worst crisis we've seen there in the past 10 years. The government has to take urgent measures to hold accountable police who used excessive force during the demonstrations, hold accountable police who used torture in the police precincts. But moreover, there has to be broader reform to fix the political process, to allow genuine competition, to allow a free vote. Otherwise, people in Azerbaijan will just lose faith in the system."
The group is also calling for more outside pressure to insist the Azerbaijani authorities investigate the torture claims and allegations of electoral fraud. So far, Human Rights Watch says such criticism has been muted.
The U.S. initially congratulated Aliyev on his victory, though it then called for a probe of allegations of intimidation and ballot-stuffing. But next week, Azerbaijan's human rights record will be in the international spotlight, when the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly debates Baku's compliance with its membership commitments.
"It's not a coincidence we're releasing the report as the Council of Europe is about to debate Azerbaijan's human rights record," Denber said. "Azerbaijan wanted very much to be admitted to the Council of Europe back in 2001. The Council of Europe is an important player there. What we're asking the Council of Europe to do now is to adopt a very strong resolution condemning the human rights abuses in Azerbaijan, calling for a commission of enquiry with international participation, to investigate the election fraud, [and[ calling for a commission to investigate torture. We think it's time for the Council of Europe to send a very strong message to Azerbaijan that if the government doesn't start meeting its human rights obligations that it has as a member of the Council of Europe, then the credentials of its parliamentary delegation will be at risk."
That debate is scheduled for 27 January.