Azerbaijani authorities have unleashed a massive and brutal political crackdown, arresting hundreds of opposition leaders and activists since the October 15 presidential election, Human Rights Watch said today. Ilham Aliev, the son of the outgoing leader, was elected president in a vote that international and local observers said was marred by widespread fraud.
“The Azerbaijani authorities are using the post-election violence, an affair in which they themselves played a major role, to justify a massive crackdown on the opposition,” said Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch’s senior emergencies researcher. “Arbitrary arrests have to stop. Those arrested without cause must be released immediately, and those in custody should have access to an attorney.”
Human Rights Watch called on the government to publish a full list of all those arrested in the aftermath of the election, their whereabouts and the charges against them. Human Rights Watch urged the international community to press the Azerbaijani government to launch an independent commission, with international participation, to investigate election fraud.
Almost immediately after the polls closed on October 15, violence erupted between opposition supporters and the police. Later that evening, Azerbaijani security forces attacked peaceful opposition supporters gathered outside the headquarters of the main opposition party, Musavat (“Equality”), injuring at least 50 protesters.
Most of the arrests have occurred since October 16, when attempts by the security forces to prevent a march organized by the opposition turned violent. For details, please see Human Rights Watch press release “Azerbaijan: Post-Election Clashes Turn Deadly.”
Human Rights Watch has been able to confirm at least 190 arrests of opposition leaders and supporters, although the actual number of detainees is much higher. For example, the Minister of Interior stated on October 17 that 190 persons had been detained during the October 16 violence alone. Many of those arrested were beaten while being taken into custody.
The charges, if any, against those detained are unknown, as in many cases they have not had access to counsel.
Several national leaders of the opposition have been among those arrested, including Sardar Jalaloglu, secretary-general of the Azerbaijan Democratic Party (ADP), taken from his home on October 18 by armed masked men; Igbal Agazadeh, chair of the Umid (“Hope”) Party, arrested on October 17; Panah Huseinov, chair of the Khalq (“Nation”) Party, and a former prime minister of Azerbaijan, arrested on October 19; and Vagif Hajibeili, chair of the Ahrar party, arrested on October 17.
Most of the national leaders are being held at the Organized Crime Unit of the Ministry of Interior, a department that routinely uses torture and other physical abuse against detainees, according to Human Rights Watch research. For details, please see Human Rights Watch briefing paper “Azerbaijan: Presidential Elections 2003.”
The main opposition leader and presidential contender Isa Gambar, chair of the Musavat party, is under house arrest, and his bodyguards have been detained. Several Musavat deputy chiefs have been arrested, including Sulheddin Akper, deputy chief for international affairs; Ibrahim Ibrahimli, deputy chief for humanitarian affairs; Arif Hajiev, deputy chief for organizational affairs; and Mirbaba Babaev, a member of the Musavat supreme council.
The campaign of arrests has also focused on members of the “Our Azerbaijan” bloc, including many civil society leaders, who supported the candidacy of Musavat leader Isa Gambar. Mehti Mehtiev, director of the Human Rights Resource Center, was arrested at his home on October 18. Itimar Asadov, chair of the Karabakh Invalids Association, was arrested on October 17. The security forces also attempted to arrest Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, a major religious leader and the head of the Center for the Protection of Conscience and Religious Freedom; he received refuge in the Norwegian Embassy after two of his associates, Azad Nazimanoglu and Najaf Allahverdiyev, were arrested on October 17.
The authorities have also detained local opposition activists in villages and towns throughout Azerbaijan. For example, on October 17, police in the town of Saatli arrested Agarza Miriev, the local Musavat chief; Beibala Akperov, his deputy; Mikhail Humbatov, chair of the local ADP branch; Chingiz Umudov, the local chief of the Liberal Party; and Fakhreddin Abdiev, the local chief of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (APFP).
Among other local leaders whose arrest Human Rights Watch has been able to confirm are: the chairs or deputy chairs of the Musavat party branches of Ali Bairamli, Gazakh, Gabala, Ismaili, and Jalilabad, Sumgait; the head of the ADP branches in Ali Bairamli, Imishli, and Zagatla; the chairs of the Azerbaijani National Independence Party (ANIP) branches in Ganja, Quba, and Shamkir; and the chairs of the APFP branches in Jalilabad and Siazan. Human Rights Watch also confirmed the arrest of the head of the Umid party in Ali Bairamli. All of their names are on file with Human Rights Watch.
In addition, the Azerbaijani authorities have arrested dozens of opposition members who served as observers and polling-station officials during the October 15 election because they refused to sign vote tallies from their polling stations that they believed were fraudulent. The tallies, known as protocols, require the signatures of polling-station officials. In the town of Ganja alone, Human Rights Watch has obtained the names of 32 opposition polling-station officials who are currently being detained for their refusal to sign fraudulent vote tallies.
International monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Council of Europe and the National Institute for Democracy (NDI) have confirmed widespread fraud on election day. According to many reports, the families of opposition election officials who refused to sign forged protocols have also come under pressure and been victims of intimidation from government officials, and in some cases have themselves been arrested.
Human Rights Watch calls on the Azerbaijani authorities to immediately end the crackdown against members of the opposition. Human Rights Watch further urged the Azerbaijani government to carry out a prompt, independent and impartial investigation into the violence plaguing the country prior and subsequent to the election, and to investigate and prosecute security officials and others implicated in abuses. Urgent international action is needed to prevent a further decline in human rights conditions in Azerbaijan, Human Rights Watch stressed.
Human Rights Watch also urges the Council of Europe and the OSCE, together with the United States and the European Union, to press the Azerbaijani government to form an independent commission to investigate election fraud. Election experts from the Council of Europe and OSCE should be part of this commission.
“Azerbaijan is going through its most serious human rights crisis of the past decade,” said Bouckaert. “If this crackdown continues, there won’t be an opposition left in Azerbaijan by the end of the month.”