Azerbaijani opposition parties have cancelled a rally planned for 2 November saying they fear the government would have used ‘strong provocations’ to disrupt and discredit it. In the days running up to the protest, the government has reportedly used several methods to apply pressure to prevent it.
Saturday’s protest was announced by opposition coalition the National Council of Democratic Forces following one of the countries largest opposition rallies in recent years on 19 October.
During the 19 October demonstration, hundreds of protestors including the leader of the Popular Front Party (PFPA), Ali Karimli, were arrested. Karimli was allegedly beaten by police.
Opposition leaders have claimed that in the run up to 2 November, the authorities have arrested or prolonged the detention of dozens of activists, attempted to organise a pro-police counter rally by queer people, and arranged for an anti-torture activist to be hit by a car.
The 2 November protest, like the previous one, was not authorised by the authorities. The Baku City Administration again proposed that the opposition hold their rally on the outskirts of Baku — in the Lokbatan township.
The opposition had requested to conduct it in the Mehsul Stadium, closer to the city centre, and vowed they would do so in the city centre if this was refused.
On Wednesday the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Chief Prosecutor’s Office warned that police would ‘resolutely suppress the unauthorised action’ and said that the leaders of PFPA, particularly Ali Karimli, would ‘be held responsible for violating public order’.
They said they regarded the protest as ‘an attempt to seize power by force’ and warned people that they could be prosecuted for organising or actively participating in it.
Campaigning for international pressure
The opposition Musavat Party told news agency Turan that they discuss their participation in the rally, while ReAl party refused to participate in it.
The decision to postpone the rally came following an urgent meeting of the National Council and the APFP.
It followed a statement on Thursday by Jamil Gasimli, the head of the National Council, urging opposition leaders to postpone the rally and focus on pressuring the European Union, the USA, and the Council of Europe to ‘start serious negotiations with the Azerbaijani authorities to fulfill their international obligations’.
Hours after Gasimli’s statement, Daniel Balson, Advocacy Director for Europe and Central Asia for Amnesty International USA, urged US officials to raise the issues both in the US and with the Azerbaijani authorities, Turan reported.
Gasimli wrote on Facebook that he is currently in Washington DC with a delegation of human rights activists attempting to ‘attract the attention of US politicians and media to the police’s violence, torture, and prohibitions on the freedom of assembly’ in Azerbaijan.
In an interview with journalist Ganimat Zahid on YouTube programme ‘Azerbaycan Saati’ (‘Azerbaijan hour’) Karimli stated that the rally was postponed because of ‘government’s several strong provocations’.
‘Now our goal is to get stronger’, he said.
On 27 October Oktay Gulaliyev, the head of the Committee against Torture and Repressions and a member of the Coordination Centre of the National Council, reported the launch of a 10-day public campaign against violence and torture by the authorities.
Two days later, the organisers announced in a press conference that they planned to campaign for international sanctions against those who use torture in Azerbaijan, as well as to hold protests in front of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, conduct flashmobs, and publish videos and other materials on social media.
Upon leaving the press conference, Gulaliyev was hit by a taxi on a pedestrian crossing on a central street in Baku. He was urgently hospitalised and received serious brain damage.
His son shared the video of the accident on Facebook.
Despite Gulaliyev having to be operated on because of his injuries, the Ministry of Internal Affairs evaluated his condition as ‘moderate’.
The ministry also stated that an investigation had been opened against the driver for violating traffic rules.
Several members of Gulaliyev’s family as well as supporters and activists speculated that the incident was not an accident, claiming it he was hit deliberately as an attempt by the authorities to apply pressure on him.
On Wednesday, a small group of journalists and bloggers protested in front of the Ministry of Transport, Communications, and High Technologies, demanding that mobile internet and communications not be interrupted during protests.
During 19 October’s rally many people reported that their mobile internet was cut off throughout the city.
Arrests of activists and death threats against Karimli
In the run up to the protest, a number of opposition activists were detained by the authorities.
In addition, 28 opposition party activists still remain in detention following their arrests during and before 19 October’s rally, according to opposition.
Shortly before the rally was cancelled, three activists from the PFPA were detained on administrative charges, including prominent party member and former Deputy Chair Fuad Gakhramanli.
On 26 October, Karimli reported the arrest of Ilham Huseynli, a member of the PFPA’s presidium and one of the main organisers of the 19 October rally. Huseynli was later accused of drug use.
On Tuesday, the Court of Appeal extended the detention of PFPA Deputy Chair and journalist Seymur Hazi and another PFPA activist, Nijat Nizamov, from 15 to 30 days.
Later that day, Karimli reported that another member of the PFPA was abducted by 4 men in front of the Court of Appeal, later he also was given 30 days administrative detention.
The following day, Vahid Maharramli, a prominent member of the PFPA and coordination center of National Council was arrested on charges of petty hooliganism, he was later released with a fine. Karimli reported the arrest of two more party members later that day.
Karimli stated that the government was ‘intensifying its repression against the PFPA activists on the eve of the 2 November rally.’
On Tuesday, Gultakin Hajibeyli, a former MP and member of the National Council Coordination Centre, wrote on Facebook that she received a phone call from the founder of the pro-governmental National Fedayis movement, Fuad Muradov, in which he threatened to kill Karimli.
‘He said that if Ali Karimli participated in the 2 November rally, he would be severely punished. They will do anything to protect Ilham Aliyev. This is clearly a death threat crime’, she wrote.
In September, Muradov came in conflict with PFPA member Ruslan Amirli, a bodyguard of Karimli. Amirli was later allegedly briefly kidnapped after Muradov threatened to ‘crucify him’.
[Read more on OC Media: ‘Kidnapped’ opposition activist sentenced to 30 days in Azerbaijan]
Police ‘bribed queer people to hold anti-opposition rally’
On Tuesday the Nefes LGBT Alliance and Minority Azerbaijan said that they had received reports that several queer sex workers were offered ₼100–₼300 ($59–$180) to ‘express their satisfaction with their present situation’ and to say that the ‘LGBT community is on the side of the police’.
‘We, being the Nefes LGBT Alliance, Minority Azerbaijan and the Free LGBT Organization, urge the LGBT community of the country: don’t participate in these kinds of cunning games, accepting the proposed amounts of money or other things’, the statement reads.
‘Such provocations, first of all, put in question the physical security of the LGBT community.’
The groups strongly condemned the ‘use of the LGBT community in dirty plans’, and urged all Azerbaijani queer people to protect their security during demonstrations.
Gulnara Mehdiyeva, a veteran gender activist with Minority Azerbaijan, told OC Media that the queer people targetted were sex workers, who are financially vulnerable.
Ilham Babayev, the chief spokesperson of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, told Meydan TV that the allegations were ‘absurd’.
‘It is impossible; no police [officers] would call LGBT members and propose this’, he said.
[Read more on OC Media: Azerbaijani queer sex workers ‘offered money to hold anti-opposition rally’]