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Azerbaijan Criticized For Crackdown On Opposition Ahead Of Rally

Popular Front Party leader Ali Kerimli said the police advised him to go to the officially permitted place for holding the protests, otherwise they could not guarantee his or other protesters' security.
BAKU -- Human rights groups and the U.S. Embassy in Azerbaijani say they are concerned by a government crackdown on opposition leaders and rights activists ahead of a planned opposition protest in Baku, RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service reports.

Some 10 opposition activists have recently been given jail sentences ranging from five to 10 days, according to the Public Chamber, the opposition's umbrella organization.

Several others have been temporarily detained and given warnings by police.

Activist Rovshan Nasirli, one of the most recent, was detained at his home with his brother on March 31 and sentenced to nine days' detention. It is not known what he was charged with.

Ali Kerimli, chairman of the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, and Isa Qambar, head of the opposition Musavat Party, were summoned to Baku's main police station today.

Kerimli told RFE/RL that police advised him to go to the officially permitted place for holding the protests, otherwise they could not guarantee his or other protesters' security.

"I told them that Azerbaijani legislation and international conventions [that Azerbaijan] has joined recognize the right to free assembly," Kerimli said. "And we intend to make use of this right and hold a peaceful rally."

The Baku city council has not allowed the opposition to stage a rally in the city center but rather in a small stadium on the outskirts of Baku that is inaccessible by public transport.

Amnesty International issued a statement on March 31 denouncing the clampdown on activists ahead of the protests.

"Amnesty International urges the Azerbaijani authorities to respect their obligation to guarantee freedom of expression in Azerbaijan and to take immediate action to end the harassment of activists and journalists by police, officials, and nonstate actors," it said.

Amnesty wrote that young activists' calls for a protest on March 11 were similarly blocked by the authorities.

A peaceful protest organized by opposition parties on March 12 was violently dispersed in Baku after the organizers were denied permission to gather in a central square of the capital.

Keith Bean, the spokesman of the U.S. Embassy in Azerbaijan, said in a statement to RFE/RL that "it does not seem to be coincidental that these individuals are being arrested and detained this week. Rather, it appears that these men and women are being detained to prevent their participation in planned protests or to discourage others from such participation."

Meanwhile, Interior Minister Ramil Usubov called on Azerbaijanis to abstain from taking part "in the radical opposition's unsanctioned meetings."

In an interview with AzTV state television, he said: "The organizers [of the protest] know that the police will not allow them to attend illegal protests and make certain statements and [if they do] there will be a confrontation. It will be viewed as confronting the police, it will viewed in a legal sense and criminal proceedings will be opened. The organizers and active participants [of the protests] will be held responsible."