The government has not allowed any public assemblies in downtown Baku for several years, but now seems even more determined to thwart any unauthorized rallies anywhere in the country.
The authorities’ actions come in the wake of the mass protests in the Middle East and follow calls by Azerbaijani social media and opposition activists for rallies to protest government policies and corruption.
The chronological course of events in Azerbaijan this month has been gathered and can be read on Human Rights Watch information. There have been detentions of social media and opposition activists and protesters, and closure of one human rights NGO.
4 March – 2 detained
On March 4, Azerbaijani police detained Dayanat Babayev, a member of the opposition Popular Front Party’s (PFP) Youth Committee. Babayev, 21, is also an active Facebook and social network user and. He has been very critical of the government in his postings, but has only promoted peaceful public protests.
His family and friends heard nothing until March 6, when they learned that he had been convicted, allegedly for disobeying a police order, an administrative offense, and sentenced to 10 days in detention.
Also on March 4, police arrested Bakhtiar Hajiyev in the town of Ganja for draft evasion. Hajiyev, 29, a Harvard University graduate and a member of the youth movement “Positive Change,” ran for parliament from his hometown, Ganja, in November 2010.
He, too, is an active social media user and had posted messages in support of the March 11 protests. In one of his posts he called on police not to harm people who might come out on the streets expressing their grievances. He was arrested two hours after he posted the statement.
Hajiyev was remanded to one month in pre-trial detention and has alleged to his lawyer that he was ill-treated in custody.
5 March – 1 detained
On February 5, police arrested Jabbar Savalanli, another member of the Popular Front Party’s Youth Committee. Savalanli, 20, is a second year student at Sumgait State University and an active social media user. He had posted several comments that were very critical of the Azerbaijani leadership and called for their resignations.
Savalanli was arrested at his apartment building entrance and taken to the Sumgait city police station, where police searched him and said they found 0.74 grams of marijuana in his coat pocket. Two days later the Sumgait District Court remanded him to a two-month pre-trial custody.
8 March – 2 detained
On March 8, police detained Rashadat Akhundov, a 27-year-old social media activist who was one of the first to call for the 11 March protest. Elchin Namazov, Akhundov’s lawyer, told that police in civilian clothes approached him as he was running errands in Baku and demanded his documents.
When Akhundov replied that he did not have them but could ask his father to get them, the policemen grabbed him, twisted his arms, stuffed him into a car and drove away. His mother witnessed the incident and tried to intervene, but was shooed away.
Akhundov was taken to Baku police station No. 37, where two police officers whom he had not seen before wrote a complaint against him, saying that he had disobeyed police orders. That day the Khatai District Court convicted him of disobeying police orders and sentenced him to five days of administrative detention. At his trial Akhundov refused the services of a state-appointed lawyer, but the court refused to wait for his own lawyer to arrive.
Although administrative offense cases are open to the public, police refused to allow Akhundov’s family or media to attend the hearing.
Also on March 8, police arrested Sahavat Sultanov, deputy head of the opposition party Musavat’s youth wing and an active social media user. Sultanov, 29, had actively promoted the March 12 opposition rally through his Facebook contacts and other outreach. A man in civilian clothes approached Sultanov as he was getting into his car after leaving a pharmacy. The man opened the rear passenger door and jumped in, telling Sultanov to drive.
When Sultanov protested and tried to get the man out of the car, several other men, apparently plainclothes policemen, approached and pushed him back into the car. One of them drove the car to the Karadakh district police station. Namazov, who is also Sultanov’s lawyer, said the policemen discussed in Sultanov’s presence how they would break traffic rules while driving Sultanov’s car, record this on a mobile phone, and later charge him with traffic violations.
Police then charged Sultanov with “auto hooliganism” – violating traffic rules, an administrative offense. In a hearing that lasted only minutes a judge sentenced him to five days of administrative detention. The judge also denied Sultanov’s request to be represented by a lawyer of his choice. He was not allowed to contact his family, and his lawyer found out about his detention and conviction by accident as he was visiting Akhundov in the same detention center.
10 March – AHRH suspended
On March 10, the Justice Ministry summoned an Azerbaijan Human Rights House (AHRH) representative and handed her a letter ordering the organization to cease all work immediately. A ministry official said the organization was in breach of June 2009 amendments to the Law on Nongovernmental Organizations.
The amendments require all international groups or their local affiliates in Azerbaijan to sign separate agreements with the government allowing them to operate. The group had been registered and operating since 2007, and the amended law does not state whether the requirement applies retroactively to groups already registered, nor does it define the nature of such an agreement or what it should contain or consist of.
The ministry had not issued any prior warnings that the group was violating the law nor did it provide a grace period to rectify the problem. Instead the ministry ordered the organization to shut down immediately.
The shutdown came after two other episodes earlier this year. On February 10, high-level police officials came to the office after youth activists held a news conference there in which they criticized government policy. The police asked for the names of everyone who visited the offices and demanded to be informed of all the organization’s planned activities. The police also threatened to “convince” the landlord of the apartment rented by the organization to terminate the lease and evict the group.
A staff member told that police also spoke to neighbours in the building in an effort to find people who were unhappy about the meetings held there. Before leaving, police threatened to call the organization’s manager every second day until the office was closed.
In January, the group had arranged and participated in a trip to Strasbourg for several Azerbaijani human rights defenders to bring the country’s worsening human rights situation to the attention of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly. Shortly after the trip, the speaker of the Azerbaijani parliament made public statements that the organization’s work was “negatively affecting Azerbaijan’s international image” and urged the appropriate government authorities to “take steps” against such groups.
This is not the first time the Azerbaijani authorities have used bureaucratic grounds to close human rights groups. In the lead-up to Azerbaijan’s 2008 presidential election a court closed the Election Monitoring Center, an independent domestic election observer organization, after the Justice Ministry found “inaccuracies” in the group’s registration documents. The group has been unsuccessfully trying to reregister ever since.
11 March – 32 detained
Azerbaijani authorities detained dozens of people on their way to protests in Baku on 11 March, arrested social media activists in an effort to prevent public rallies, and suspended the work of the AHRH.
In various parts of downtown Baku, the police rounded up at least 32 people who had intended to participate in the rally. Most were held for a few hours and released after the police took statements from them, but courts sentenced at least nine people to administrative detention, with sentences ranging from five days to eight days.
12 March – 50 detained
Azerbaijan’s political opposition attempted to hold a rally on March 12 in Baku, but the authorities refused to allow the event to go forward.
At around 2 pm, several hundred people arrived in small groups at the rally venue, Fountain Square, a pedestrian street in downtown Baku, shouting “Freedom” and “Resign.”
Security personnel greatly outnumbered the demonstrators. As soon as the demonstrators gathered, hundreds of uniformed policemen entered the square from an underground parking lot and swiftly dispersed the crowd, roughing up and detaining many. Uniformed policemen locked arms to form a long line. They advanced on demonstrators and pushed them out of the square, kicking some and detaining others.
According to Baku’s Main Police Department the police detained 50 demonstrators, 20 of whom face administrative punishment for disobeying police orders. The authorities are using the “disobeying police order” charge as a ground to punish those who participated in the peaceful rally.
The Mobile Group of Lawyers, a group uniting several lawyers and providing pro bono legal aid to detainees, tried throughout the day to get information about the detainees and their places of detention. Several of the lawyers went to police stations to request access to the detainees, but were told that none of the protesters were being held at those stations. Yet the lawyers told Human Rights Watch that they learned that some of the detainees had indeed been brought to those precincts.
Other organisations’ coverage:
Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Institute for Reporters Freedom and Safety (IRFS) are among the organisations who have followed the unfolding events in Azerbaijan. Read HRW’s article here and IRFS here.