Dozens of opposition activists charged with helping organize postelection disturbances in Baku are conducting protest fasts to demand their immediate liberation and a review of the disputed 15 October presidential poll. The protests are taking place against a repressive political background that human rights campaigners say is unprecedented even by local standards.
Prague, 4 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Hundreds of people were arrested in the wake of the Baku street unrest that followed controversial presidential polls on 15 October. Most of those detained were released without charge. Yet more than 100 opposition activists remain in custody.
On 1 December, dozens of prisoners began protest fasts at Baku's Bayil jail to demand their release and an independent, international review of the election.
Among them is Rauf Arifoglu, the deputy chairman of the Musavat (Equality) opposition party that claims victory in the polls. Arifoglu, who is also editor in chief of the "Yeni Musavat" daily, was arrested in late October amid accusations he helped organize and participated in postelection disturbances.
Also apprehended under similar charges were Musavat Deputy Chairmen Arif Hacili and Ibrahim Ibrahimli; Democratic Party of Azerbaijan General-Secretary Sardar Djalaloglu; Umid (Hope) Party Chairman Igbal Agazade; Halq (People) party leader Panah Huseynov; and Etimad Asadov, the chairman of the Karabakh War Veterans Association.
Musavat leader Isa Qambar, who finished a distant second to outgoing President Heidar Aliyev's son Ilham in the vote, has not been detained. But he has been under house arrest for the past month and a half.
All of those arrested after the election are being jailed for three months pending their trials. If convicted, they could face four to 12 years in prison. Nearly 100 detainees have reportedly begun protest fasts.
Outside Bayil prison, several Musavat militants and members of other opposition groups are refusing to take food in solidarity with the prisoners. On 2 December, the wives of the detainees decided to participate, as well.
Hursid Ahmedova is the spouse of Musavat Deputy Chairman Hacili. She spoke to RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service on the premises of the Baku-based Society for the Protection of Women's Rights, where about 10 women had gathered. Ahmedova says the protest movement aims at obtaining the liberation of all postelection detainees.
"Whatever happens to [our husbands] affects us directly and is of great concern to our children. It has been more than a month now that their fathers have been absent from home, and they are worriedly awaiting their return. This is the reason why we have decided to launch this protest," Ahmedova says.
Azerbaijani Deputy Justice Minister Aydin Hasimov on 1 December warned that authorities will not meet demands made by the protesters, whom he said will be fed by force if necessary.
Azerbaijan's independent Turan news agency yesterday quoted Interior Minister Ramil Usubov as advising the protesters to stop fasting and "repent for their crimes instead."
In comments made to RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, one of the detainees' lawyers, Mirismail Hadi, confirmed that officials seem determined not to let the protest movement gain ground.
"They have been told that in case doctors would issue recommendations to that effect, they would be enjoined to put an end to their hunger strike and that [Bayil] prison officials had the right to feed them by force," Hadi said.
Reports say some hunger strikers are complaining of stomach pains, while others are still suffering the consequences of police violence sustained while on remand. Rights campaigners say they have evidence some opposition leaders confessed to inciting post-election unrest under duress.
This is notably the case with Umid Chairman Agazade, who admitted his participation in the street disturbances in a televised confession.
On 29 October, Turan reported investigators had tortured Karabakh war veteran Asadov in a bid to force him to testify against the Musavat leadership.
Leila Yunus chairs the Baku-based Institute for Peace and Democracy, a nongovernmental organization. She tells our correspondent that although people detained at Bayil prison are no longer being tortured, their health remains a matter of great concern: "All detainees are kept at the isolation jail Number One, also known as Bayil prison, where detention conditions are comparatively normal. But most of them were initially kept at the Interior Ministry's anti-organized-crime department immediately after their arrest and were tortured there. Doctors and even international observers who met ADP Secretary-General Djalaloglu, Musavat [Deputy Chairman] Ibrahimli, and Umid Chairman Agazade noticed they had been tortured. Naturally, their health shows the effect of these tortures."
Authorities in Baku flatly deny violence was ever used against postelection detainees. They also criticized a recent report made by a panel of independent experts from the United Nations that urges Azerbaijan's newly elected president to ensure that universal rights of freedom of speech and protest are upheld.
Government officials, in turn, say they are ready to engage in "dialogue" with the opposition. But many in Baku remain defiant.
Ali Kerimli, the leader of the reformist wing of Azerbaijan's Popular Front, on 27 November said authorities are insincere in their pleas for talks and urged them to put an end to "moral and political terror."
Rights campaigner Yunus also says the overtures being made by the authorities are a red herring: "How could you possibly offer an opposition leader to start dialogue after he had been arrested and tortured, after his fingers had been broken and his [back] beaten to such an extent that he can no longer walk? Is this an 'offer of dialogue'? To me, this is just an empty slogan designed for shortsighted Western political leaders."
Azerbaijan's foreign economic and political partners have expressed concern at recent violence in Baku and have urged the country's new leadership to show restraint in dealing with its opponents. However, reports of voting irregularities and postelection political repression have aroused few official comments in Western chancelleries.
Talking to reporters yesterday in Baku, visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld eluded a question about Washington's view of the 15 October election. Instead, he vowed to increase military ties with Azerbaijan in the global fight against terrorism.
By contrast, international nongovernmental watchdogs have stepped up their criticism of Azerbaijani officials for their handling of the postelection unrest.
In a 21 November statement, the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists accused President Ilham Aliyev and his government of "conducting a campaign to intimidate and silence the opposition press" and of attempting to "quell dissent in the aftermath of the elections."
The group said opposition newspapers have been excluded from using the state printing presses, while paper supplies to independent media outlets remain under threat.
In another sign that authorities are determined to crack down on opponents, Azerbaijan's Center for Freedom of Conscience and Religion (DEVAMM) yesterday reported the arrest of its director, Ilqar Ibrahimoglu. Ibrahimoglu, who is also the head of the Azerbaijani chapter of the International Religious Liberty Association and the reformist imam of the Cuma mosque in Baku, was arrested after showing up at the Prosecutor-General's Office as a witness in a criminal case. Lawyer Hacili today told Turan that Ibrahimoglu has been formally charged in connection with the post-election disturbances.
Shortly after 15 October, security forces stormed the Cuma mosque during Friday prayers, forcing Ibrahimoglu to seek temporary shelter at the Norwegian Embassy, along with Musavat Deputy Chairman Arifoglu. The motives for the police raid are still unclear.
Human rights groups and antigovernment parties say roughly 10 people have been arrested in the past 10 days, while another 17 opponents are still being sought by police.
Civil campaigner Yunus says despite Azerbaijan's traditionally poor human rights record, the rise of the youngest Aliyev to power marked a turning point for political dissent in the country.
"Prior to 15 October 2003, election frauds were not accompanied by mass arrests and repression. But after 15 October, around 1,500 people were detained across the country. Also, thousands of people lost their jobs, mainly in the provinces. Those are members of opposition parties and their relatives. Nearly 600 people were formally arrested, and  of them remain in prison today. People continue to be arrested and tortured. Pressure is being exerted on media freedom, and printing of opposition newspapers is being disrupted."
Yunus concludes: "Whatever aspect you take -- be it freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, independence of the judiciary, tortures, arrests, or politically motivated dismissals -- the human rights situation has dramatically deteriorated in Azerbaijan."