Activists in Azerbaijan held a protest against domestic violence on Sunday despite attempts by the police to break it up. Police arrested several of the protesters, who were predominantly women, with activists accusing them of using excessive force.
Baku police did not approve the organisers’ request to hold the march, arguing it would ‘interfere with people’s comfort’.
Dozens of protesters gathered near a statue of Azerbaijani poet Khurshidbanu Natavan on Baku’s central Nizami Street and faced down police, who demanded they leave the site.
After protestors refused, police attempted to forcibly disperse them, tearing posters from their hands which featured slogans against domestic violence, such as ‘Don’t be silent, let the violence be silent’, ‘We don’t want love that kills’, ‘Go out of that house without a shroud’, and ‘Police, don’t behave like the community’s elder’.
Aytaj Agazade, one of the organisers of the march, told OC Media that they expected their posters to be torn apart, which is why the protestors had also written the same slogans on their clothes.
During the march, a large group of female street sweepers tried to help the police by ‘sweeping’ the protesters away. When asked by journalists, why they were present at the protest in such large numbers, one of the street sweepers replied that ‘we are just doing our job’. Street sweepers also attempted to disperse a Women’s Day protest on 8 March.
[Read more on OC Media: Police in Azerbaijan break up women’s day march]
Ilgar Mammadov, chair of the opposition Republican Alternative Movement party (ReAl), also joined the march. He told journalists that the Istanbul Convention — an international agreement which commits states to combating domestic violence — should be signed, ratified, and executed not only on paper, but in real life.
He also condemned the violence used by police towards protesters and stated that he came to the march in order ‘to express his solidarity with the participants’.
After several protesters were detained, the group demanded their release, chanting: ‘Release the detainees!’.
After the police assured them that everyone had been released, the marchers broke through the police cordon and managed to move onto a nearby street, chanting: ‘Say no to violence towards women’, ‘Say no to selective abortions!’, ‘Say no to early marriages’, and ‘Do not reject the Istanbul Convention!’ among other chants.
Soon they were forced to stop and were surrounded by police again. Despite this, the protestors continued to chant and to speak to journalists.
The rally was also joined by Zumrud Yaghmur and her daughter Sanay Yaghmur, the wife and daughter of Fuad Gakhramanli. Gakhramanli, the former deputy chair of the opposition Popular Front Party, recently resigned from his position after his another daughter Seljan accused him of domestic violence.
[Read more on OC Media: Azerbaijani opposition rocked by domestic violence allegations]
‘Don’t be complicit in the killing of women’
Adressing the police and the gathered onlookers, teacher and feminist activist Nisa Hajiyev articulated the main demands of the protest. ‘Our demands are: the adoption of the Istanbul Convention, the defence of human rights by law enforcement agencies, not treating [domestic violence] as a “family matter”, conducting preventive work to reduce domestic violence, selective abortions, early marriages, girls dropping out of school […] because today, nobody controls this issue in the regions.’
One of the protesters, directly addressed the police officers present. ‘Law enforcement agencies, when a woman comes to you, don’t turn back their complaints, because during the last nine months, 118 women were beaten and killed. And you are also guilty of that. Don’t be complicit in the killing of women.’
Another protester showed off bruises she said she sustained at the hands of the police during their attempt to disperse the protest earlier that day.
Several protesters wore shirts with slogans commemorating Elina Hajiyeva, a teenager who commited suicide at her school in Baku in April because of bullying at the school.
The school’s headteacher was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison for negligence resulting in death. According to the court, she did not immediately call an ambulance, keeping the injured teenager for an hour within her office.
Feminst activist Rabiyya Mammadova told journalists that the protesters also stood against the light sentence meted out by the court.
‘This case must be reopened’, she said.
[Read on OC Media: Opinion | A suicide that shook Azerbaijan]
Protest organiser Aytaj Agazade told OC Media that prior to the march, the organisers were harassed by the police. According to her, undercover police officers followed them home from meetings planning the march and their social media accounts were subjected to phishing and hacking attacks.
She said that despite the intimidation, the organisers were ready to face down police violence during the rally.
‘We told each other that we will proceed with our march, even if [due to police violence] we would end up being only three of us’, she said.
She said that during the protest, police picked up demonstrators and drove them to different parts of the city centre and left them — in order to put some distance between them and the march.
Agazade also reported that several women received injuries from the police. ‘One of the women received a severe back injury, another girl broke her nail, some were dragged along the floor […another girl] had bruises on her neck and scratches on her hand [...] [one of the female protesters] was brought to the police station where she was handcuffed so tightly that she had abrasions’, she said.
Ismayil Azizov, another participant in the march, told OC Media that the police injured his hand and leg and that he ‘feels pain’ when he tried to move.
He also noted that, men received better treatment from the police than the women, and were not handcuffed when they were detained. He said that he and other activists were detained only briefly, and that he was released far away from the protest site.
Another protester, Seymour Nazar, told OC Media that he was dragged by the police along the ground when he was detained, but that he was released shortly thereafter. He said that the police asked him why a man would participate in a rally for women’s rights.
‘I told them that women’s rights are demanded not only by women but also by men’, he said, adding that the police disparaged him for having a panic attack as well as his ‘non-masculine’ appearance. Nazar has long hair and wears a piercing in his nose.
Fifteen-year-old Sanay Yaghmur told OC Media that despite her age, police officers treated her very violently. ‘They took me away twisting my arms and pulling my hair’, she said.
On Monday the Turan News Agency reported that during the protest, journalists from Radio Azadlig, Meydan TV, Turan, and several other journalists were attacked by police.
‘The police pushed and kicked them, grabbed the cameras from their hands, tripped them up, and broke their cameras. All this was accompanied by abuse and insults’, they wrote.
On Monday, Dunja Mijatovic, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, condemned ‘the disproportionate use of force against peaceful protestors in Baku’, and called on the authorities to adopt effective measures to ‘ensure that the right to freedom of assembly is fully respected’.
Mijatovic also urged the authorities to release the protestors who still remained in detention.
Despite the violence, protest organiser and veteran activist Gulnara Mehdiyeva told OC Media that the protest went ‘better than we expected’.
‘I am very proud of the women who attended the event,’ she said. ‘They are all great. Everyone who fights for their rights is great. There is no clear plan for future actions, but this is not our last event.’