The village of Soyudlu in western Azerbaijan remains locked down and closed to outsiders, over two weeks after police clashed with local people protesting against pollution.
On 20–21 June, residents opposed to the dumping of waste from a nearby gold mine were confronted by riot police, who deployed tear gas and pepper spray, including at elderly residents.
Local residents told OC Media that Soyudlu had remained closed to outsiders since, with police checkpoints set up at all entrances to the village. Only those registered as residents of the village can enter or leave.
‘They allow people to enter and exit only after checking their documents’, one woman who was injured by the police in the protests told OC Media.
‘I work as a nurse in Gadabay District. Every day, after checking my documents at the police station, they allow me to leave the village. We go through the same procedure when we return home from work’, she said.
The authorities have responded by arresting residents involved in the protests as well as activists from outside the village who have supported them.
[Listen on OC Media: Podcast | Roadblocks and acid lakes: an Azerbaijani village under siege]
‘Shohrat Asgarov, who was arrested while going to buy medicine for his child, was released after being beaten at the Gadabay Police Station’, another local resident told OC Media.
‘I also had gas in my eyes’, she added. ‘My eyes still hurt sometimes.’
‘Many people cannot come to the village. Those who leave are also checked and then released. Police have been deployed on all sides of the roads.’
Since the protests in June, the authorities have continued to arrest people who have spoken out against the police response.
On 5 July, the Narimanov District Court denied bail to Nazim Beydamirli, an activist, businessperson, and former MP.
Beydamirli is officially on trial for extortion, and faces a possible 5–10 years in prison.
However, Beydamirli’s lawyer, Agil Layij, connected his arrest with his public statements on the events in Soyudlu.
In the days following the protests, Beydamirli had told local media that claims by residents of Soyudlu that gold mining was harming people’s health and the environment were justified, and had stated that the villagers’ rights had been violated.
Zeyni Huseynov, a spokesperson for Azerbaijan’s Interior Ministry claimed that Beydamirli’s detention followed a report filed by a citizen, who alleged that Beydamirli had blackmailed them, threatening to release ‘shameful images’ if they did not pay him
Beydamirli has pled not guilty to the charges.
Other reports of both protesters from the village and those who supported them from outside of Soyudlu being detained have spread since the protests began. Five protesters from the village received administrative sentences of 20 days, while one was fined ₼1,500 ($880).
Information spread on social media alleges that three others were also administratively detained: Etibar Jabbarov, an ethnic Azerbaijani Russian citizen who had created the residents’ WhatsApp group a few years ago, Shohrat Askerov, a participant in the protests, and Habil Ismayilov, the owner of a business that printed posters used during the protest. Ismayilov was allegedly arrested on drug-related charges.
Official sources have not commented on these claims.
Protesting against acid lakes
People in the village of Soyudlu began protesting against alleged pollution from the nearby gold mines on 20 June, claiming that acid dumping by the company was causing health and environmental damage.
Residents stated that an artificial 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.
They also voiced their objections to plans to construct a second artificial lake in the area.
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.
The government has defended the decision to use force against protesters, maintaining that protesters provoked police by throwing stones at them.
Prime Minister Ali Asadov has also ordered that a commission be set up to monitor the environmental situation near the village.
One woman who participated in the protests told OC Media that representatives of the district executive and other officials come to the village ‘every day’ to talk to local people, but she said residents were not satisfied with their responses.
She said that for now they had just one request: ‘that those who were unjustly arrested by the police should be released unconditionally.’