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Azerbaijani Police Raid Village
(New York, February 8, 2003) Up to 200 armed police entered the village of Nardaran early in the morning of February 5 and attacked sleeping villagers at a protest site, Human Rights Watch said today. At least 15 villagers were injured during the 15-minute police assault, some suffering severe head injuries and broken ribs from truncheon and rifle-butt blows. The authorities have detained eight and denied them access to legal counsel.

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Report of the Indepedent Public Commission, October 15, 2002

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“Azerbaijan’s government needs to engage those who are protesting and to address their concerns rather than responding with violence.”

Elizabeth Andersen
Executive Director
Europe and Central Asia Division

The police focused their raid upon a large tent in Nardaran’s central square, in which up to 60 men were sleeping. The inhabitants of Nardaran have made the square a venue of constant protest demonstrations since police opened fire on villagers on June 3, 2002, killing one and wounding dozens more. The villagers’ original protests were about adverse social conditions common to nearly all of Azerbaijan—mass unemployment and gas and electricity shortages.

“Instead of responsible policing, due process, and impartial investigations, the Azerbaijani authorities are provoking new tensions in Nardaran,” said Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division. “Since last June’s bloodshed, arbitrary and punitive police action has kept Nardaran under a state of siege.”

Immediately after the police raid, four separate independent investigative groups of Azeri journalists and human rights monitors surveyed the scene of the February 5 raid, interviewed villagers and reported similar findings:

At approximately 3:00 am on February 5, police detachments entered Nardaran, which is 25 kilometers north of the capital, Baku, in several buses and cars, and converged on Imam Hussein Square from different directions. Villagers heard automatic weapons being fired—apparently into the air. However, investigators from an Azeri nongovernmental organization, The Institute of Peace and Democracy, also reported finding bullet holes in the tent canvas. Spent 5.45- millimeter and 7.62-millimeter automatic rifle cartridges and Makarov pistol cartridges were also found at the scene.

According to witnesses, masked police in camouflage uniforms threw a tear gas canister and smoke grenades into the tent, entered it, and randomly beat its surprised occupants. The tent canvas was ripped apart, and a police jeep was reportedly used to damage nearby greengrocery kiosks. The police detained eight men and immediately withdrew from Nardaran, as awakened residents came out to confront them.

Injured villagers said to be in need of hospitalization have not dared to leave the village for fear of arrest and torture. Reportedly, lawyers are being denied permission to meet the eight detainees. This raises the fear that they may be subjected to torture—a widespread police practice in Azerbaijan. Several of 18 other Nardaran residents, whom the authorities put on trial on January 8, have alleged being tortured in detention.

“So far, the Azerbaijani government’s response to social protest has been raids, beatings and tarring social protesters with sinister labels, which is only likely to exacerbate problems,” said Andersen.

In an official statement on February 5, Azerbaijan’s Interior Ministry and Prosecutor’s Office justified the night raid “by the necessity of catching” persons suspected of instigating the violence of June 3, 2002, and alleged that villagers resisted the police with firearms and a hand grenade, injuring six policemen. The statement did not acknowledge or undertake to investigate disproportionate police violence in the raid, an official response similar to that following the June 2002 shootings. The void of credible official investigation in that instance was filled by a coalition of Azerbaijani nongovernmental human rights groups, which researched and published an independent report on the events in Nardaran settlement on June 3, 2002. The prosecution of Nardaran villagers in that incident is seen by many as a punitive show trial.

Azerbaijan’s authorities allege that the Nardaran protestors have exploited social grievances as a cover for a foreign-backed agenda to mount an Islamic fundamentalist takeover of the country. At the ongoing trial, Nardaran elder Alikram Alizade is accused of accepting $40,000 from Iran.

The government response to the social protest movements in 2000 and 2001—particularly the handicapped veterans of the Karabakh war and demonstrators in the town of Sheki—also included accusations of ulterior motives, punitive actions, and show trials. Nardaran’s example of social protest may have particularly concerned the authorities during the last few weeks, which have seen a nationwide domestic energy crisis, as an unusually cold winter coincided with sharp shortages of heating fuel, gas, and electricity.

“Azerbaijan’s government needs to engage those who are protesting and to address their concerns rather than responding with violence,” said Andersen.