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Azerbaijan: Presidential Elections 2003

Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, October 13, 2003

Official Violence and Intimidation at Opposition Rallies

Many political opposition rallies in Azerbaijan have taken place free of violence, with the police professionally carrying out their duties. However, police abuse continues occur at many opposition rallies, and the fear of being caught in such violence is a common reason why ordinary persons chose not to attend them. The level of police violence during the election campaign, and the presence of large numbers of police at most opposition rallies, has created a palpable climate of intimidation at almost any opposition rally, even those who proceed peacefully. In addition, in some cases local executive authorities foment violence against rally participants.

In just one week of interviews, Human Rights Watch documented dozens of cases of severe police beatings, some of them involving broken bones and similarly severe injuries. In these instances, the police initiated the violence, responding to activities that would be considered acceptable in a democratic society such as the carrying of political banners or the shouting of slogans. The cases documented below do not represent an exhaustive overview of police beatings, but rather illustrate the pervasiveness of such abuses. Human Rights Watch has documented many more cases of police beatings cases during the current presidential election campaign than during the 2000 parliamentary election campaign, a disturbing trend of escalation of political violence.

In many cases in which police beat political activists, the activists are then brought to administrative courts and sentenced to terms of imprisonment for periods up to fifteen days on misdemeanor charges. Judges and police do not allow detainees access to counsel at the administrative hearings, and judges almost inevitably side with the police in sentencing the political activists to detention for "resisting" or "insulting" the police, even if the evidence before them clearly indicates that the accused were the victims of police abuse.

Among the most severe cases of police violence documented by Human Rights Watch targeted activists of the Azerbaijan Democratic Party (ADP), who hold bi-weekly pickets in front of the CEC building to protest the commission's decision to deny the candidate registration of Rasul Guliev. Police have consistently responded by beating the protesters.

In a typical case that occurred on October 3, a group of about fifty persons protested in front of the CEC. The police stormed the protesters and beat them with rubber batons. They managed to chase a group of four women activists into a nearby garden, where they beat the women severely, bruising them all over their bodies. Three of the women managed to flee, but police caught Jofar Almadova and beat her again. The woman lost consciousness, and an ambulance was called when she arrived at the police station. However, when the ambulance driver was informed that the woman was an ADP activist, he refused to treat her.25

Police violence against political activists has been increasing in Azerbaijan for months, only slightly beginning to decrease with the arrival of international monitors in early September. Fuad Hassanov, the ADP secretary for international affairs and founder of a human rights organization named Against Violence, was beaten and arrested at a May 25 demonstration demanding democratic elections in Fizuli Square:

There were buses filled with police already [at the square], with truncheons. They didn't even allow us to gather. We realized we couldn't hold a rally, so we decided to just shout our slogans. At that very moment, the police started beating us with truncheons, and kicking us. I was pushed into a minibus... They continued to beat us on the head and face, my lip was bleeding. All of us were beaten like this.26

After the beating, the detained activists were taken to a local administrative court where the police charged them with resisting arrest and insulting the police, misdemeanor offenses. The judge refused to listen to their accusations of police brutality, and sentenced them to fifteen days of detention.27

Rafik Zeinalov and about ten others were beaten during an ADP protest in July, and then sentenced to ten to fifteen days of detention for resisting arrest. On October 1, 2003, Zeinalov took part in another picket in front of the CEC, where he was violently beaten, and watched as the police beat unconscious a fellow ADP activist, Nuradin Ishmailov.28

On September 6, police beat many ADP protesters during a large unauthorized protest at Fizuli Square in Baku, injuring twenty-five persons. Latifa Allaverdieva, a forty-year-old teacher, recalled how she was beaten at the rally:

We came out of the underground, a group of women shouting "Rasul-bey! Rasul-bey!"29 Immediately, the police started beating us with truncheons. We started to disperse. There were many police, five or ten for each woman. They separated us, and beat us individually. [After], I saw my sister laying on the ground, badly injured. We had to get men to come and help get her to a taxi, she was unconscious.30

The beating also left Allaverdieva's thirty-year-old sister with severe injuries to her knee, and she was still bedridden a month later. After the beatings, the police arrested three other protestors, who were subsequently sentenced to three and four day sentences for "resisting the police."31

Elderly demonstrators are not spared. Seventy-year-old Famil Hassanov had several ribs broken when police beat and kicked him during a July 21 ADP protest at the CEC, and spent a month recovering from his injuries. Seventy-three-year-old Ramitin Makhsudova participated in an ADP rally in early September, and tried to come to the assistance of a young woman who was being violently beaten by the police: "They beat me badly with truncheons and then arrested the woman. I couldn't stand after the beating and some young men had to help me. ... I hurt my hip and was in bed for ten days." A month later, on October 1, 2003, she again participated in an ADP protest at the CEC, and seriously injured her wrist when she was hit by a police truncheon: "They approached me to hit me, so I tried to protect my head with my arms-when they hit me they injured my wrist." When asked why she continued to protest despite her age and the injuries, she explained that her retirement only amounted to 70,000 manat (U.S. $14) per month, and that she hoped an ADP administration would improve conditions for the retired.32

Local journalists attending the opposition rallies are not immune from police violence, and displaying press accreditation often makes them targets of it. Tabriz Vefali, a journalist with the ADP-aligned Hurriet newspaper, wrote an article on October 2 about witnessing a police captain taking the mobile phone of an ADP activist he was beating on October 1. The next day, he was observing another ADP picket at the CEC building, and a group of police which included the police captain approached him accusing him of slandering the police: "They started beating me, punching me on all parts of my body. I was hit in the face, making my lip bleed." The journalist still had trouble speaking when interviewed by Human Rights Watch on October 4, because of injuries to his face.33

While ADP activists have borne the brunt of the violence and arrests, other political opposition parties have faced similar violence on a number of occasions. On September 21, when several thousand Musavat supporters gathered at rallies for Isa Gambar at two cinema houses in Baku (see above, "Obstruction of opposition rallies") police violently dispersed the crowds outside the cinemas, injuring scores of peaceful activists at each event. The opposition leaders and journalists believe that the police specifically targeted some of them present at the meeting, and their evidence does suggest that they were singled out for abuse.

The head of the Khalq party (which supports the candidacy of Isa Gambar) and former prime minister, Panah Husseinov, was outside the Tabriz cinema to try and stop the police violence, but he himself soon became a target of the violence. Although the police had just cleared the lobby of the cinema, they pushed Husseinov back inside, and a group of about twenty-five police and pro-government protesters beat him severely, breaking his nose and wrist. He believes that he, Isa Gambar, and Yeni Musavat [New Musavat] newspaper editor Rauf Arifoglu were specifically targeted by the police.34

At the same rally, police also beat a group of journalists. Anar Natikoglu, who was covering the rally for Yeni Musavat, was standing at the entrance to the cinema with four other journalists when the violence erupted. He described how the police rudely told the gathered crowd, "Get away from here, you bastards," and began beating the crowd. Suddenly, the police focused their beating on the gathered journalists:

We were pushed inside the little hall and the doors were closed. The police began to beat us very violently, and we couldn't escape. I was on the ground, and they were beating me with truncheons and kicking me. The beatings lasted for about ten minutes. Forty policemen beating twenty people-you can imagine what it was like. I was badly hurt, and unable to stand. Two activists tried to help me. The police beat me again on my back and I fell down again, and they began kicking me. I was about to faint when the activists pulled me away.35

Also on September 21, police and pro-government supporters violently attacked rallies held by Etibar Mamedov (ANIP) and Ali Kerimli (APFP) in Lenkoran and Masally district, injuring many people who had come to attend the rally. Mamedov and Kerimli told Human Rights Watch that they had been personally targeted by the violence, and that the police and pro-government supporters appeared to be working together. The two leaders were saved from injury by their bodyguards, but seventeen opposition members were arrested, to be released only the next day.36

Local officials, particularly the local executive authorities, have also been involved in fomenting violence against opposition supporters.

In one case documented by Human Rights Watch, the head of the executive authority in Saatli, Gulhussein Akhmedov, and a large number of his relatives-including two brothers and several cousins-together with other members of the executive authority, beat opposition supporters during the October 2 ANIP/ANPF rally in Saatli. According to many witnesses interviewed independently by Human Rights Watch, the executive authority members and their relatives gathered at the protest holding axe and spade handles, and proceeded to severely beat attendees on their way to the opposition rally.

Among those beaten most severely was twenty-year-old Abdelali Ibragimov, who was hit in the face with a wooden stick and had his jaw broken in two places. Mubaris F., who does not belong to a political party, decided to go to the rally "because I am interested in democracy," and witnessed the beating of Ibrahimov:

We were few in numbers, and the main group of [attendees] was in front of us. Suddenly, we saw a group of people with posters of Heidar and Ilham Aliev, shouting pro-government slogans. The group had axe and spade handles. At first they hit Abdelali very strongly from behind on his jaw. He fell down and they started kicking him. I helped him stand up and we tried to get away. Two more of the provocateurs came and took him out of my hands, took him into a shop and locked the door. They were beating him more there. ... Among the group was Khanhussein [Akhmedov, the brother of the head of the executive authority]. He was leading the group that was doing the beating [as was a cousin].... The police did nothing. They [police] were all around us during the beating.37

Ibragimov was taken to the local hospital in Saatli, where doctors were too afraid to treat him, saying they were not allowed. The family had to arrange for a doctor to secretly come to a nearby house to examine him, and then took Ibragimov to Baku for treatment.38

Nazim Abasov also told Human Rights Watch that he had been hit in the face with a spade handle by Khanhussein Akhmedov, right after the beating of Ibragimov:

I heard someone say, `they are beating him [Abdelali].' I looked and saw it was the brother of the head of the executive authority, Khanhussein Ahmedov. At that moment, Khanhussein hit me on the nose and eye with a spade handle. I almost lost consciousness, the hit was very strong. Two others were standing next to him also with spades. The assistant of the head of the executive authority was also there. They pushed me facedown into the water channel and started to kick me.39

Another opposition supporter, Azer Narimov, was hit in the face by the same group of people, causing a broken tooth.40

Etiban Imanov, a teacher, was beaten by a second brother of the head of the executive authority, Mehman Akhmedov. "They became very aggressive. The brother of the executive authority said he would kill me, saying, `Just see what happens after October 15. I will kill you. We have the power to do it.' I was trying to separate the fighting people but then he attacked me. I was hit hard with a wooden stick and knocked out, right on the back of my head."41

Despite the heavy police presence at the rally, they did nothing to stop the violence. The local police chief even feigned ignorance of the violence, although he grew visibly uncomfortable when a Human Rights Watch researcher explained that he had evidence of direct involvement by members of the executive authority and the head's relatives.

The violence continued after the rally. The same group of relatives beat Vahid Mirzaev about one hour after the meeting, as he was walking home from the rally. Some four hours later, two more opposition activists were beaten by people linked to the executive authority.

25 Human Rights Watch interview with Jofar Almadovo, Baku, October 4, 2003.

26 Human Rights Watch interview with Fuad Hassanov, Baku, October 2, 2003.

27 Ibid.

28 Human Rights Watch interview with Rafik Zainalov, Baku, October 4, 2003.

29 "Bey" is an honorific ending for a respected person's given name. Rasul-bey is the honorific name for Rasul Guliev.

30 Human Rights Watch interview with Latifa Allahverdiyeva, Baku, October 4, 2003.

31 Human Rights Watch interview with Eldar Zeynalov, Baku, October 4, 2003. Zeynalov was one of the men sentenced to administrative detention.

32 Human Rights Watch interview with Ramitin Mahsudova, Baku, October 4, 2003.

33 Human Rights Watch interview with Tabriz Vefali, Baku, October 4, 2003.

34 Human Rights Watch interview with Panah Husseinov, Baku, October 6, 2003.

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

36 Human Rights Watch interview with Etibar Mamedov and Ali Kerimli, Goitshai, October 8, 2003.

37 Human Rights Watch interview with Mubaris F., Baku, October 6, 2003. Mubaris F. is a pseudonym. [ok?]

38 Human Rights Watch interview with Gandashali Ibrahimov, Baku, October 4, 2003.

39 Human Rights Watch interview with Nazim Abasov, Saatli, October 3, 2003.

40 Human Rights Watch interview with Azer Narimanov, Saatli, October 3, 2003.

41 Human Rights Watch interview with Etiban Imanov, Saatli, October 3, 2003.

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October 13, 2003