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Scores Detained In Azerbaijan Amid Countrywide Protests

'People Are Asking For Jobs And Bread:' Azerbaijanis React To Protests Following Currency Collapse
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WATCH: 'People Are Asking For Jobs And Bread' --Azerbaijanis React To Protests Following Currency Collapse

Scores of people, including opposition activists, were detained in Azerbaijan on January 13 amid countrywide protests over worsening economic conditions in the oil-rich Caucasus state.

Protesters rallied in the districts of Fizuli, Aqsu, Aqcabardi, Siyazan, and Lankaran to voice their anger over price hikes on staples such as flour and bread.

Most of the arrests were made in the district of Siyazan, where troops were sent in. Overall, 55 people were detained there "to protect citizens' constitutional rights and ensure public safety," the Interior Ministry and the Prosecutor-General's Office said in a joint statement.

The statement added that those detained held "illegal marches" in the city of Siyazan on both January 12 and 13.

"Unlawful actions inflicted various physical injuries on police officers and damaged two of the police vehicles," the statement said.

Security forces used tear gas against stone-throwing protesters in Siyazan and several other towns, where an undisclosed number of detentions were reported.

The official statement acknowledged that protests took place in various locations and blamed the opposition Popular Front (AXCP) and Musavat parties for organizing them.

The central authorities' account was contradicted by at least one local official. Rasim Novruzov, a deputy head of the district administration in Aqsu, said the events in his district could not be described as protests.

Novruzov added that local authorities had spoken to the demonstrators and agreed to address high flour prices.

However, reports indicated that several opposition activists were detained amid the unrest.

In Lankaran, local AXCP chief Nazim Hasanli was detained together with the chairman of the local branch of the opposition Musavat party, Iman Aliyev.

Hasanli and Aliyev were each sentenced to one month in jail for taking part in an unsanctioned protest. Both pleaded innocent, saying they had nothing to do with the rallies.

Meanwhile, AXCP youth activist Turan Ibrahim was detained in Baku. He was arrested near his home in the capital late on January 13, according to his brother, Togrul Ibrahim, who said at least seven police officers took him away as he was returning from work.

Ibrahim was taken to the Nariman district police department in Baku and charged with resisting arrest, his brother said.

Turan Ibrahim's father, Mammad Ibrahim, is an adviser to the AXCP chairman who has been in custody since late September on hooliganism charges. The elder Ibrahim rejects the charges as politically motivated.

WATCH: Protests Break Out Across Azerbaijan

Protests Break Out Across Azerbaijan
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Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's government has faced increasing criticism about rights abuses. Several journalists and rights activists have been jailed over the past year on charges such as hooliganism, tax evasion, and illegal business activities.

Rights groups say the charges are often trumped up, and leveled in retaliation for opposition activities and criticism of senior government officials. Azerbaijani officials have denied the allegations.

Manat In Free Fall

The unrest follows a steep drop in the value of the national currency, the manat, against the U.S. dollar. Falling oil revenues, which make up the vast majority of Azerbaijan's exports, have also rocked the economy amid a decline in global oil prices.

Azerbaijani citizens have been hard-hit by rising inflation, unemployment, and costs of staple goods. Earlier this month, a 63-year-old maintenance man set himself alight in front of his workplace, reportedly after complaining to colleagues of bank loans he could not repay.

In the latest sign of economic trouble, Azerbaijan's Central Bank on January 14 banned independent currency-exchange outlets from operating. Central Bank officials said only banks would be allowed to exchange foreign currency.

The Central Bank in December listed "the continuing devaluation of partner countries' currencies" among the factors contributing to the ailing economy.

The manat has tumbled by more than 42 percent against the dollar on the black market since the Central Bank withdrew support for the currency last month after exhausting more than half its foreign currency reserves in an attempt to prop up the manat against falling oil prices. Azerbaijan's currency has fallen 33 percent on the official market.

The bank said it was forced to loosen the currency regime to "preserve hard-currency reserves ... and ensure the national economy's competitiveness on the international arena."

The decision was also prompted by the continued depletion of a critical source of finance for the state budget, the State Oil Fund of Azerbaijan (SOFAZ). Reserves in the fund, established in 1999 at the start of the start of the country's oil and gas boom, have dipped by more than 9 percent since the beginning of the year.

When oil prices fell, the government had used money from the fund to prop up the Central Bank's plummeting foreign reserves, leaving it with $33.6 billion as of December 1.

In related news, Baku has since ordered a cut in the price of flour, which had been rising rapidly thanks to the manat's collapse.

In a statement on January 14, the Economy Ministry said it was waiving value added tax on the import of wheat and the production and sale of flour and bread from January 15.

It said that would allow a reduction in the wholesale price for flour, and listed the prices at which bread should now be sold.

"Anyone who sells flour and bread at higher prices will be held to account in the most serious way," the statement said.

"This decision has been taken on the instructions of President Ilham Aliyev to strengthen the social protection the population, in particular poor families, from the change in the rate of the manat."

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