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Hundreds gathered outside the Baku City Administration building on Tuesday to protest the local authorities’ denial of permits for protests within the city centre. Despite their picket being authorised, police attempted to disperse the crowd and dozens were arrested.
The protest was organised by the National Council of Democratic Forces, a coalition of Azerbaijani opposition parties.
It came after the government failed to approve a request by the National Council to hold a rally on 28 September in the city centre. The Baku City Administration eventually approved their request a day before it was due to be held, but stipulated that it could only be held in Lokbatan township on the outskirts of Baku.
Picket and march
There was a heavy police presence at the site of the picket long before it was due to begin, with officers setting up barricades.
Protesters were divided into two groups — with some standing in front of the Baku City Administration and another group observing and supporting from the opposite side of the road.
After the number of people attempting to join the picket exceeded the maximum authorised amount, 50, police began pushing people into the metro.
Protesters chanted ‘Freedom!’ while holding posters with slogans such as: ‘Give me back my right to hold rallies’, ‘Squares belong to people’, ‘Don’t tarnish the constitution’, and ‘Respect the law’.
Addressing protesters, Tofig Yagublu, a leading member of the opposition Musavat Party, said that freedom of assembly was normal in other countries and that by forbidding protests in the city centre, the government was violating Article 49 of the Azerbaijani Constitution.
He also asked the government to create appropriate conditions for holding the Musavat Party Congress on 12 October, where the party chair will be elected.
Ibrahim Ibrahimli, a representative of the National Council of Democratic forces, announced a new rally planned for 19 October, urging people to join it.
During the picket, a single man stood near protesters chanting support for President Ilham Aliyev, holding a poster reading ‘the people are with you, Mr. President Ilham Aliyev’.
Another group who was pushed aside by police to another side of the road marched through nearby streets before dispersing in around half an hour.
The Popular Front Party chair, Ali Karimli, wrote on Facebook that ‘thousands of protesters’ took part in the action.
Karimli said that despite many people not being able to take part in the picket, their ‘willingness to participate or observe the picket from the side sends an important message to the government’.
He added that the police had a more professional approach towards the protesters, and that the members of the Popular Front Party didn’t allow anything illegal to take place.
Communication problems and arrests
The Baku Main Police Department told Trend News Agency that protesters violated the ‘Law on freedom of assembly’ by arriving at the site long before the set start time, agitating people to join their ‘illegal action’, being more than 50 people, going beyond the established protest site, and interfering with the movement of vehicles and pedestrians.
According to them, 17 people received warnings and criminal investigations were opened into four others. They said that 5 people who were drunk and were carrying non–firearm weapons would be taken to court.
Several protesters reported online that the true number of people arrested was far greater.
Two members of the Popular Front Party, Elkhan Aliyev and Alizamin Salayev, were given 15 days administrative detention for ‘disobeying police’.
Nemet Abbasov, a member of the Popular Front Party, told OC Media that when members of his party arrived they were not allowed to the picket site. ‘The police used force to make us leave the site and arrested several people’, he said.
‘I was arrested and brought to the Sabayil District Police Station. Of course, all that police intervention was illegal. We were kept there for a while. There were 10–12 people there besides me. We were released, but they put pressure on us telling us to never join such actions in the future’, he said.
Journalist Aslan Hamidli, the head of Azerbaijani news channel ANTV, told OC Media that he was arrested shortly after the action started. ‘I was subjected to pressure inside the [police] car’, he said adding that he saw police officers use violence against other journalists, but ‘not so much as they used on me’.
He said that the first police station he was brought to was crowded and so he was brought to the Sabayil District Police Station. He said he was kept there for around 30 minutes and then released after a ‘preventative conversation’.
Protesters also complained that mobile internet did not work at the site of the protest.
Journalist and social activist Nurlan Gahramanli told OC Media that there internet connectivity problems during the picket prevented journalists from broadcasting live from their phones. ‘One of the policemen even told me: “We have cut the internet, how are you able to be live?’.
A spokesperson of mobile operator Bakcell told OC Media that reported communication problems were due to ‘technical improvement work being carried out in the country’. Azercell did not respond to a request for comment.
‘Provocative character of the picket’
Siyavush Novruzov, Deputy Executive Secretary of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, told Azerbaijani news agency APA that the picket had a ‘provocative character’.
‘The organisers had been invited to the Baku City Police Office beforehand and were warned about slogans and other issues, but they still did not comply with the legal requirements of a picket.’
‘An attack on a man standing aside with the slogan: ‘People are with you, Mr President Ilham Aliyev’, the removal and tearing of the poster, showed that these people were destructive, intolerant, provocative, and did not recognise any civil methods of struggle. This confirms that the picket is provocative’, he said.
He also noted that Popular Front Party leader Ali Karimli did not appear at the picket.
‘The organisers of the event, those led by the Popular Front Party and the National Council, did not participate in the protest. The aim was to provoke the demonstration by instructing certain people, and then sending these images to European authorities. The requirements of the “Law on freedom of assembly” have been violated and the organisers are responsible for it’, he concluded.