Authorities react very nervously to signs that opposition disquiet could turn into mass protests that toppled governments of Egypt and Tunisia.
Azerbaijan’s opposition activists pledge to keep staging protests, even though their attempts to emulate the mass demonstrations in the Arab world have flopped.
Police officers thronged central Baku around the Sahil garden on April 17, the most recent occasion when opposition activists had been refused permission to hold a protest march.
Activists were arrested even before the march, with two senior members of the Social Chamber opposition umbrella group arrested and sentenced to five and ten days in prison on April 16. Another dozen activists were detained on the morning of April 17, and the hundreds who attempted to reach the Sahil garden were dispersed or arrested by police.
“Even though the authorities are constantly dispersing the protesters, violating the citizens’ right to freedom of assembly, beating the participants in the protest, we will not surrender. For more than 20 years, we have been struggling with dictatorship to gain a free society, and we will continue this struggle until we achieve our goals,” Isa Qambar, head of the Musavat opposition party, said.
“Azeri people have the right to live in a free, democratic country, where they can freely express their opinion.”
According to official figures from the interior ministry, 65 people were detained on April 17, with 25 of them being released and 40 passed on to the courts. The Social Chamber insisted that 80 people were detained, including a mother with her five-year-old daughter.
“I also was detained during the protest. I am not a member of any party, but I take part in every protest because I cannot tolerate this lawlessness. The officials spend the people’s oil money, and the people have nothing. I live on a pension of 85 manats (110 dollars a month), and this money doesn’t even suffice for utility bills,” Miralem Pashayev, 65, said.
“My sons have a higher education, but cannot find work, because you need to pay a bribe to get anywhere. And we are not even allowed to go onto the streets to express our demands. Apparently protesting people ruin their invented picture of a happy country, with a contented people.”
Interior ministry spokesman Ehsan Zahidov denied any political motive lay behind the arrests, saying that the opposition had been offered a place to protest outside the city, and deliberately chose not to use it.
“There is no need to politicise the arrests of these individuals. They are just citizens like everyone else. Everyone is equal before the law. If someone is arrested for hooliganism, and the court confirms it, then there is nothing to talk about. And it does not matter at all to use what party this person belongs to,” he said.
All the same, Azerbaijan’s authorities have reacted very nervously to signs that opposition disquiet could develop into the kind of mass protests that toppled the governments of Egypt and Tunisia. Young activists even just attempting to arrange protests have been detained.
The police also arrested four local journalists, including Afqan Mkhtarli, who was fined 50 manats for bad behaviour.
“I did not take part in the protest, I was not even reporting on it. I was detained a kilometre from the location. In the court, two policemen said that supposedly I loudly swore at people sitting near me, and as a result I was fined,” Mkhtarli said, adding that he had appealed against his conviction.
Among the detained journalists were three Swedes. They were deported from the country, despite their insistence that they were operating openly, with the interior ministry saying they lacked official accreditation.
The opposition has called its supporters onto the streets three times in the last month but the protests have remained small, far smaller than mass demonstrations that have followed elections in Azerbaijan in the past, leading pro-government politicians to conclude that the opposition has lost its appeal to the population.
“At this so-called protest there were more journalists and representative of NGOs than real oppositionists. And this shows once more than in Azerbaijan the people relate badly to such events. This is defeat, defeat for the opposition in front of our eyes. These people can just make noise, for they have no power, and no followers among the people,” Mubariz Qurbanli, deputy first secretary of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party, said.
Such reassurance did not calm foreign observers of the country, however, with both the United States and the European Union expressing strong concerns over the government’s refusal to allow the opposition onto the streets.
«We are increasingly concerned about the domestic developments in the Republic of Azerbaijan regarding freedom of assembly and expression. Several new incidents of arrests by the authorities have taken place in response to peaceful demonstrations,“ said a statement from the EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy Stefan Fule.
“We encourage the Azerbaijani authorities to allow the peaceful demonstrations to take place in relevant locations and call on the country to fully respect its… commitments in the fields of democracy and human rights.”
Samira Ahmedbeyli is a staff writer for IWPR in Azerbaijan.