Hundreds of people were arrested on Saturday in Baku during a protest organised by opposition coalition the National Council of Democratic Forces. A number of journalists and opposition activists were among those detained, including the Popular Front Party leader Ali Karimli.
The rally, held near the central 28 May Metro Station, was not authorised by the Baku City Main Police Department. The authorities offered that the organisers instead hold the demonstration on the outskirts of Baku in the Lokbatan Township.
Ali Karimli, the chair of the opposition Popular Front Party stated that the rally would be held with or without official permission, despite officials warning that anyone attending such unauthorised action would be held criminally responsible and that ‘any illegal action’ would be dispersed.
The main demands of the protesters were the return of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijani control, the release of political prisoners, free elections, childcare subsidies, and the introduction of medical insurance.
A message appeared on the website of the Baku Metro Saturday morning saying that the 28 May, Jafar Jabbarli, and Khatai stations would be closed from 13:00 due to ‘the illegal action’ next to them to ‘protect the rights of citizens who use these metro stations’. The stations reopened at 17:00.
Journalists reported that mobile internet was cut off throughout the city on Saturday. The Bakcell, Nar and Azercell mobile operators all told OC Media that they were ‘conducting technical work to improve communication’.
Journalist Kamran Mahmudov told OC Media that he intended to sue Bakcell for ‘leaving me without [mobile] internet today’.
Hundreds of police were bussed in to the site hours before the protest was due to begin and officers constructed barricades to block off the area. The police closed all the shops in the surrounding area including a shopping centre.
Local journalists and activists reported on social media that police began to make arrests hours before the protest started.
After police blocked the square in front of the 28 May metro station, hundreds of activists began to gather in the park in front of the National Bank of Azerbaijan, chanting ‘Freedom!’ and ‘Resignation!’.
Natig Adilov, a member of the National Council of Democratic Forces and chief spokesperson for the Popular Front Party told OC Media that around 500 people were arrested. The Baku Main Police Department stated that from around ‘220 people’ who attended the rally, 60 were arrested and 42 of them were released soon after.
Adilov said that some of those arrested were taken to the outskirts of Baku, to the Hovsan and Garadagh townships, and released there. He said that the majority were taken to the Nasimi District Police Station. According to him, many ambulances were presented near Nasimi police station. ‘Some of them [the detainees] were in serious condition’, he said.
Shortly after the rally started, Ali Karimli, the chair of the opposition Popular Front Party, was arrested on his way there along with several opposition activists accompanying him.
The Baku Main Police Department reported that Karimli was later released.
Excessive use of force by the police
In an interview with journalist Sevinj Osmangizi, Karimli said that police officers beat him in the police bus as well as choking him; ‘I was afraid I am going to die’, Karimli said. He said that he had to have six stitches on his head.
The Baku Police Department stated that Karimli ‘suffered minor injuries on his forehead’ because ‘he resisted the police’ when officers asked him for documentation.
Footage from the protest showed police dragging away dozens of people, and activists reported officers used excessive force, including beating participants with batons.
Shahla Ismayil, the chair of the Women’s Association for Rational Development, a Baku-based NGO, condemned on her Facebook page the violence applied by police during the rally towards women.
Dilara Miriyeva, a member of the Popular Front Party, told OC Media that she was ‘thrown to the floor twice’ by the police. ‘They took me by hand in a very rude way and pulled me to the floor. Thanks to other people, I was raised up. Also, one female journalist was pulled to the floor the same way near me’, she said.
Nurlan Gakharamanli, a social activist and journalist who was present at the rally, told OC Media that he observed many cases of physical pressure towards protesters. ‘They were pushing us, pressing us to the wall’, he said.
He also noted that his knee was injured by a police officer in civilian clothes, and that many such officers were present. He said that around five journalists were arrested and later released.
Nigar Hazi, the daughter of prominent Musavat Party member Tofig Yagublu, reported on Monday that her father was ‘severely tortured’ after being detained on Saturday.
She wrote on Facebook that he was ‘handcuffed from behind and pulled to the floor and beaten for 1 hour. He was severely beaten with punches and kicks. According to his lawyer, he has a huge bruise under his right eye. There are many noticeable bumps on his head. He can’t raise his right hand.’
‘If something happens to my father, Ilham Aliyev will bear full responsibility!’, she wrote.
Violations by the officials
Rasul Jafarov, a prominent Azerbaijani human rights activist, told OC Media than Azerbaijan’s legislation does not require permission from the authorities for a protest or a demonstration.
‘The law has such an approach that one needs to inform the local authorities about the date, time, and place where people plan to gather. There is no such thing in the law as to not give permission to hold a protest or demonstration, in which case the police have the right to intervene in an action in the way they demonstrated it today’, he said.
Jafarov noted that the right to freedom of assembly is guaranteed by the Constitution of Azerbaijan as well as several international acts that Azerbaijan is a signatory of, such as the European Convention on Human Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
‘Thus, the right to freedom of assembly was grossly violated. Along with that, the existing communication problems […] were the intervention in the right on gathering of information of people and their right to know about the events taking place in the country. It is a constitutional right of all people and this right was frankly and grossly violated’, he said.
Jafarov also said that the closure of metro stations was a violation of the rights of the people who use it during these hours. ‘Baku Transport Agency, which regulates the traffic of metro and buses, seriously violated the rights of passengers […] All these people have big chances to sue the Agency and win the cases’.
He also said that the use of excessive force by the police is regulated by the same laws.
‘The main question here is whether the police’s reaction is proportionate to the events happening. If a demonstration is peaceful and there are no calls for offenses or attacks on other people or objects, here the police should not use force.’
‘The police do not have the right to use force against a peaceful action, whether it is allowed by the local authorities or not. Given that the rally was completely peaceful, the use of force by the police — with hands, batons or other objects — is the use of excessive force’, he concluded.
On Saturday, the European Union’s External Action Service urged Azerbaijan’s government to investigate the use of excessive force during the rally.
‘Excessive and unprovoked force was reportedly used to disperse the crowds and arrest participants. Such incidents need to be investigated. We equally call on the authorities to release peaceful protesters remaining in detention’.
‘Freedom of assembly is a fundamental human right and we expect Azerbaijan to ensure that it can be fully exercised, in line with the country’s international obligations’, they said.
Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, condemned on Monday ‘the disproportionate use of force against peaceful protestors in Baku’, calling on the authorities to adopt effective measures and ‘ensure that the right to freedom of assembly is fully respected’.
‘The notification procedure foreseen by the Azerbaijani law for the holding of public demonstrations should be applied in accordance with European standards and no authorisation should be required for such demonstrations to take place; instead the authorities should seek to facilitate and protect public assemblies at the organisers’ preferred location’, she said.
Mijatovic also urged the authorities to release the protestors who still remain in detention.
Arrests of opposition activists before the rally
The Popular Front Party reported that around 100 activists, mostly members of their party, were arrested before the rally took place.
Ruslan Amirli, a member of the Popular Front Party, told OC Media that during these arrests, prominent members of the party such as journalist Seymur Hazi, Mammad Ibrahim, and Fuad Gakhramanli were detained.
Amirli said that he himself was arrested in Masalli District in the south of Azerbaijan on 18 October and brought to Masalli District police station. ‘They detained me without any reason, saying that they will keep me here for the duration of the rally […] I was released around 16.00 today’, he said on Saturday.
On the morning of 19 October, Niyaz Ibrahimov, a member of the NiDA youth movement who spent time in prison, wrote on his Facebook page that his mother was brought to the police station; later he reported that his father had also been detained.
On Friday, Azerbaijan’s Turan News Agency reported the arrest of several activists from the opposition Musavat party across the regions of Azerbaijan. Party leaders insisted the arrests were connected to the rally on 19 October.
‘As if they enjoy disturbing people’s comfort’
Ali Ahmadov, deputy chairman and executive secretary of the ruling New Azerbaijan party, condemned the organisers of the rally, calling it ‘a sad fact’ when ‘very few people try to attract attention by disrupting public order in a busy city’.
‘As if they enjoy disturbing people’s comfort. In fact, they should be ashamed. What I have observed is that these people who make noises in the streets are far away from the realities of Azerbaijan and the people’, he wrote.
Ahmadov called the actions of the police ‘commendable’, stating that ‘unlawful, unauthorised actions should be prevented’.
The chief of Baku Main Police Department told the APA news agency that ‘no action can be held anywhere near the metro area’. According to him, there were people who tried to take part in the illegal action, and they were prevented by the police.
‘There are detainees, and measures will be taken about them. They tried to undermine public order in order to provoke, and their attempts were prevented. I think that if they wanted to hold a rally, they had been given a very good place’, he said.
Ali Hasanov, Assistant for Public and Political Affairs for the President of Azerbaijan in an article for APA titled ‘The Second October bankruptcy of radical opposition’ wrote that ‘the government’s control over all processes in Azerbaijan and that no issue can arise beyond the control of the government has been confirmed once again today’.