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Azerbaijan: Election Run-up Not Free and Fair

Azerbaijan’s presidential elections cannot be considered free and fair because of widespread abuse and bias favoring government candidates, Human Rights Watch said in a briefing paper released today.

The briefing paper said that the government’s manipulation of election procedures, repression of the political opposition, and violence against the opposition have undermined a free and fair vote on October 15.

“Azerbaijan has a sorry history of election fraud and abuse, and the current presidential election is shaping up to be more of the same,” said Peter Bouckaert, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, who is in Baku. “Too much manipulation, too many arrests, and too many beatings of opposition activists have taken place already to consider the election process free and fair.”

Human Rights Watch research found that the government has heavily intervened in the campaigning process in favor of Prime Minister Ilham Aliev, son of current President Heidar Aliev. The government has stacked the Central Election Commission and local election commission with its supporters, and banned local nongovernmental organizations from monitoring the vote. As the elections draw nearer, government officials have openly sided with the campaign of Ilham Aliev, constantly obstructing opposition rallies and attempting to limit public participation in opposition events. In some cases, local officials have closed all the roads into town during opposition rallies, or have extended working and school hours—on one occasion, even declaring a Sunday work day—to prevent participation in opposition rallies.

Police violence and arbitrary arrests have been endemic during the campaigning period. Police have beaten and arbitrarily detained hundreds of opposition activists, including a seventy-three-year-old woman. Several major opposition rallies have been violently dispersed by the police, with scores of injuries. Local officials have also participated in pre-election intimidation and attacks, beating opposition supporters with impunity.

Human Rights Watch welcomed the large number of international observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Council of Europe, and various embassies who have been deployed in Azerbaijan, and credited the international presence with somewhat lowering abuses. However, Azerbaijani authorities continue to abuse the opposition, often in full view of international observers, seriously calling into question the government’s commitment to the principles of democracy and human rights.

The OSCE called the last elections in Azerbaijan, the 2000 Parliamentary elections, “a crash course in the different methodologies of manipulation.”

“You can’t have a free and fair election when opposition activists get beaten and arrested every day, and major opposition candidates are forced to hold their rallies in tiny venues,” said Bouckaert.

Human Rights Watch called on the government of Azerbaijan to immediately stop harassing the opposition and supporters and to desist from intimidation on election day. Human Rights Watch further called on the international community to make election reform—particularly to ensure balanced election commissions and access for domestic monitoring groups—a condition for deepening of relations with Azerbaijan.

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