index  |  next>>

Azerbaijan: Presidential Elections 2003

Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, October 13, 2003

Obstruction of Opposition Rallies

Local authorities, particularly the local executive authorities, have been deeply involved in election-period interference. Their constant attempts to frustrate opposition candidates' campaigning efforts contrasted sharply with their open support for the candidacy of Ilham Aliev and have created a deeply unfair election climate in Azerbaijan.

First among the tactics pursued by local authorities is a refusal to grant adequate venues for opposition rallies. They routinely refuse such permission outright, delay their approval until the last moment, or grant inadequate venues for the rallies.

For example, on September 21, Baku city authorities finally gave permission to the Musavat party's candidate Isa Gambar-one of the most popular opposition candidates-to hold two rallies in the capital, but confined the rallies to two small movie theaters that could seat only around 500 persons each.17 When large crowds tried to listen from outside the cinemas, hundreds of police armed with rubber batons violently dispersed the crowds, beating and injuring dozens of civilians, journalists, and party leaders gathered outside.18

Almost all of the six opposition rallies monitored by Human Rights Watch involved similar problems. In Saatli, both the October 2 ANIP/ANFP rally and the October 6 Musavat rallies were assigned to take place in front of the local House of Culture with only a small public space in front, instead of the main public square just 100 meters away that was available.

In the town of Goitshai, ANIP/ANFP applied for a permit more than a week in advance of their October 8 event. After they were first assigned the small House of Culture, the local authorities suddenly began "repairs" on the building in order to obstruct any additional crowd outside. On the morning of October 8, the local activists still had not heard where their rally would take place, and had to ask the ANIP/ANFP presidential candidates to wait until the matter could be sorted out. The authorities relented only after Human Rights Watch and U.S. Embassy representatives approached them for clarification of the situation. They rally was allowed to proceed in a small square in town. According to the ANIP/ANFP representatives, the local authorities had previously organized a large free concert for the candidacy of Ilham Aliev in the main Heidar Square in town, a venue that the ANIP/ANFP knew was so off limits that they did not bother to apply to use it.

In Mingeshevir, Musavat leaders asked the executive authority for a space that could accommodate 5,000 persons for an October 8 appearance by Isa Gambar, and were assigned a cinema seating 600, which also suddenly started to be repaired. When the Musavat local leader explained to the authorities that he was worried that clashes could erupt if the crowd was gathered in such a small place, the local police chief threatened to arrest him.19 At the last moment, the event was assigned a cul-de-sac street on the outskirts of town near the local stadium. At the same time, workers were giving the entire central area of the city a major face-lift in anticipation of a visit by Ilham Aliev, who is scheduled to appear in the town's main square.

In the large town of Ali Bajramli, the executive authority designated the tiny, 280-seat House of Culture, located in a distant part of town, as the venue for an appearance by Gambar, even though the executive authority had itself held a number of pro-Ilham Aliev events at the large and easily accessible Azadliq Square.

The difficulties opposition candidates face in obtaining venues is only the beginning of government interference. At many of the opposition rallies monitored by Human Rights Watch, local officials simply blocked off many of the access roads into the town to prevent participants from reaching the venue. At the October 6 Musavat rally in Saatli, Human Rights Watch found groups of ten local officials parked by the side of the two main access roads to the villages around Saatli, carefully watching who went into town that morning. Several cars heading to town turned around when they saw the groups of officials. About thirty minutes before the start of the rally, Human Rights Watch observed as police officials blocked off all the main artery roads into town with large trucks, effectively sealing off the area where the rally was to take place.

An almost identical situation occurred in Mingeshevir on October 8, where local officials blocked off the entire main road of the town and suddenly began cutting down trees and blocking other roads just before a Musavat rally was about to start. Local minibuses, which normally traveled close to the rally venue, were redirected through different parts of town. Immediately after the rally, the main road was re-opened. Local police officials claim that the road closures are implemented for the security of the opposition rallies. However, the thoroughness of the blockades-particularly the blocking of access roads between villages and the main town-as well as the context of all other restrictions and obstacles imposed on opposition rallies strongly suggests that the aim of the blockades is to draw down attendance at the opposition rallies.

The executive authorities and other local officials have also attempted to lower attendance at rallies by forcing municipal employees, factory workers, teachers, and students to remain at work or in class, even when the rallies take place outside work hours. In one of the most egregious cases documented by Human Rights Watch, on October 7 authorities in Minsheshevir locked between 3,000 and 5,000 workers inside the electricity plant after the end of their normal workday, forcing the workers to attend a mandatory and unprecedented "safety" event at the factory. The workers were supposed to be kept at the factory until 8:00 p.m., while a Musavat rally was scheduled in the town from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. After a Human Rights Watch researcher asked the local officials for an explanation and began photographing the locked-in workers, the workers were released at 6:45 p.m., many telling Human Rights Watch that they had been kept at the factory against their will.

In anticipation of a Sunday, October 6, Musavat rally in Saatli, the local executive authority declared Sunday a work day, requiring students to go to the schools and officials to work. After the rally, Human Rights Watch observed many students heading home from school. The students confirmed to Human Rights Watch that the executive authorities had declared that Sunday an obligatory school day, and could not recall another time that they had been forced to attend school on a Sunday.

In Ali Bajramli, the executive authority organized an unprecedented "Teacher's Day" event to take place at Azadliq Square at the same time as a Musavat rally on October 6, and made attendance at the event mandatory for teachers, students, and government officials in order to draw down attendance from the opposition rally.20 The outraged opposition supporters instead converged on Azadliq Square, and in a violent confrontation, stormed the stage of the "Teacher's Day" event and held their rally there. The next morning, police went to the Musavat office and arrested and severely beat Ilqar Gafarov, a Musavat activist, who happened to be present in the office at the time. Gafarov was released the next day, but had extensive injuries from the beatings.21

In almost all areas of Azerbaijan, opposition activists have faced great difficulties putting up campaign posters for opposition candidates, often risking arrest or other consequences. In a typical case that occurred on October 1, three Musavat members were detained by the police and beaten at the local police station in the Nardaran district of Baku while putting up Musavat posters the day before a rally for Isa Gambar. The Musavat activists had put up about fifty posters along the road when a police captain stopped his car, started shouting, "You bastards, pull down those stupid posters," and began assaulting the men, causing one of them to fall from the ladder he was standing on. The police captain, soon reinforced by three other policemen, pulled down all the posters, and beat one of the Musavat activists to the ground before arresting the group. At the station, a group of five policemen badly beat the activists. When the opposition activists referred to their rights to put up posters under the Electoral Code, the police beatings became even more vicious, according to the men.22

Also on October 1, the head of the Saatli executive authority came to the town's ANIP office after the party activists had put up posters in anticipation of the next day's rally. They proceeded to pull down all of the ANIP posters in the office and threaten the three activists present. The argument degenerated, and police officers came to arrest the local head of ANIP soon thereafter.23

Local human rights organizations and opposition political parties have reported dozens of similar cases in which authorities beat activists who were putting up posters. They have also reported that government officials in some areas threaten shopkeepers who have allowed opposition posters to be displayed. As a result, there are very few opposition posters visible in most parts of Azerbaijan, in sharp contrast with a complete blanketing of most spaces, including many government offices and public buildings, with posters for Ilham and Heidar Aliev. Opposition activists reported that their posters are taken down almost immediately by government officials, and Human Rights Watch saw many defaced or torn down opposition posters around the country. In contrast, the campaigns of Ilham and Heidar Aliev have broadly ignored the requirement that campaign posters display the publishing house, sponsoring organization, quantity of posters issued, and date of production, but neither the CEC nor local authorities have taken steps to rectify this blatant disregard for the Electoral Code.24

17 In a recent poll of the Center for Political and Economic Research, 36.3% of the individuals surveyed stated they would vote for Isa Gambar, the leader of the Musavat party, in the upcoming presidential elections of 2003. According to this poll, Isa Gambar is currently the most popular presidential candidate. "Opposition Gains Confidence as Azerbaijan Presidential Election Approaches," Eurasianet, October 6, 2003 [online], (retrieved October 10, 2003).

18 Human Rights Watch interview with Anar Natikoglu, October 2, 2003.

19 Human Rights Watch interview with Ilham Aleskerov, Mingeshevir, October 7, 2003.

20 Human Rights Watch interview with Abdullah Rafizadeh, Ali Bajramli, October 6, 2003.

21 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Abdullah Rafizadeh, October 8, 2003.

22 Human Rights Watch interviews with Shahin Zodanov, Rasim Aliev, and Asef Zainalov, Baku, October 5, 2003.

23 Human Rights Watch interview with Azer Husseinov, Saatli, October 3, 2003.

24 Election Code, Article 87.3.

index  |  next>>

October 13, 2003