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Azerbaijani police lock down village after environmental protests

22 June 2023
Women confronting riot police in Soyudlu. Screengrab from video shared on social media

Entry and exit to the village of Soyudlu has been blocked since Wednesday, after riot police clashed with local people protesting environmental damage caused by a goldmine. Ten protesters were detained, while 15 were reportedly injured in confrontations with riot police. 

Two journalists are also reported to have been detained and had their phones confiscated while covering the protests on Thursday. 

On 20 June, over a hundred residents of the village of Soyudlu in the Gadabay District gathered to protest pollution of the area by a mining company, assembling near an artificial lake reportedly used to dump acid waste from the mine. 

They were also protesting plans to construct a second, similar artificial lake in the village. Protesters claimed that waste from the mines has caused significant damage to human health and the nature of the region. 

Residents reported that around 15 people were injured and five detained on Tuesday after riot police were called in to disperse the protesters. Five more were reported to have been detained the following day, as protests continued.

Videos from Soyudlu showed police using tear gas, pepper spray, and physical violence against those protesting. In a widely-shared video, an elderly woman walking away from riot police is pepper-sprayed in the face, with later footage showing her lying on the ground as other protesters attempt to assist her.

Many Azerbaijanis expressed outrage over the footage online, and demanded that police be punished for using violence against peaceful protesters.

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On Wednesday, the Interior Ministry and the head of the region both acknowledged that protesters had been injured, but suggested that protesters had acted violently and police had shown restraint in their handling of the situation.  

The following day, Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources Mukhtar Babayev visited Gadabay District and stated that the issue would be investigated. 

‘Monitoring has already started. We will try to quickly clarify all questions and prepare and present the necessary proposals to the Cabinet of Ministers’, said Babayev. 

The gold mines are officially operated by a British company, Anglo Asian Mining Plc, managed by Iranian businessperson Reza Vaziri. However, a 2016 investigation by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) found that the mines were in fact owned by the two daughters of Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev. 

Poisoned waters

The protesters were objecting to pollution of the area by waste from the mines, which they state has caused significant damage to the health of local people. 

Residents stated that a lake in the village, which has allegedly been used to drain acid and dump waste from the goldmines for around 11 years, was damaging the nature around it and emitting toxic fumes, making it hard to breathe and causing lung damage. 

Protesters chanted and carried signs saying ‘natural waters are being poisoned’, ‘The River Kur is being poisoned’, and ‘people die of lung disease at the age of 50’. 

They also voiced their objections to plans to construct a second artificial lake in the area. 

‘The inside of [the first] lake is acid. It’s burned nature in a radius of 100 metres. In order to increase gold production, they are now building a second lake in the village’, one protester told journalists. 

She added that this lake would be close to a river. 

‘Can you imagine what that means? Nature will be destroyed as far as Shamkir, Tovuz, and Ganja.’ 

The protests continued for a second day on 21 June, with police obstructing efforts to resume protests on Thursday. On Wednesday night, police blocked roads to the village, which remain closed for entry and exit to all except for residents. 

Residents told local media that ten protesters had been arrested in total on Tuesday and Wednesday, and that their relatives were not being allowed to meet them. 

One woman told journalists that all of those detained at the protests were ‘imprisoned for 20 days’. She added that she was not allowed to visit her son, who had been detained. 

On Wednesday afternoon, the head of Gadabay District, Orkhan Mursalov, met with the protesters but claimed that their concerns were unfounded and based on ‘disinformation’ spread on social media. 

‘This grandmother is 78 years old’, said Mursalov, referring to one of the woman seen being pepper sprayed by police. ‘If the lake were poisonous, she wouldn’t be louder than me at this age.’ 

‘What do we know about the toxicity of cyanide? Who says it? This is disinformation spread on social networks.’

He added that there were currently over 50 pregnant women in the village, and the local administration had not received any ‘appeals’ from them regarding issues related to pollution. 

He also stated that while he knew that some protesters had been injured the previous day, they had thrown stones at the police, which no one had the right to do. 

On Wednesday, Azerbaijan’s Interior Ministry spokesperson stated that an investigation was being conducted into the use of pepper spray against one of the protest participants. 

‘The police officer was overcome with emotion and committed a serious offence against the woman, and we accept it’, said Elhad Hajiyev. 

However, he added that women taking part in the protests had made many ‘inappropriate statements and illegal actions’.

‘It is clear that the police officers showed high restraint and discipline towards those women’, said Hajiyev. ‘How many times have police officers been subjected to illegal acts unbecoming of an Azerbaijani woman? No special measures were applied against those women, nor was the issue of punishment raised.’

Read in Georgian on On.ge.
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