We are writing to express our deep concern over the recent detentions of opposition party members and the use of police brutality to stop a peaceful opposition rally from taking place on May 21, 2005. These incidents recall the patterns of human rights violations that preceded the October 2003 presidential election and that compromised the integrity of that process. They highlight the urgent need to take decisive action to ensure that such abuses are not repeated in the run-up to the November 2005 parliamentary election.
Baku city authorities denied the Ugur (Success) opposition election block permission to hold a rally on May 21 on the grounds that it was to be held too soon before the May 25 event planned for the opening of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline, to which international dignitaries are invited. The timing of this denial is especially regrettable. Azerbaijan has shown that it can take a leading role internationally by committing itself to transparency principles in the extractive industries. But the events of May 21 underscore that it has yet to take significant steps to open up its political processes to ensure that a plurality of groups can voice their opinions on political and social issues. The opening of the BTC pipeline in Azerbaijan should not be used as a pretext to further suppress opposition and civil society groups. Rather, it should be an opportunity to make headway in complying with international commitments, not only to the principles of revenue transparency, but to political and civil rights enshrined in European and international conventions to which Azerbaijan is a party.
To date, though, the government has limited these rights. Since October 2003, in breach of the right to freedom of assembly, the Azerbaijani authorities have imposed a de facto ban on opposition supported rallies and protests. The May 21 events provide a stark illustration of the systematic and harsh measures that the authorities are prepared to take to enforce this ban.
In mid-May Ugur, made up of the Musavat Party, the Popular Front of Azerbaijan, and the Azerbaijan Democratic Party, applied to the Baku city authorities for permission to hold a rally to call for free and fair elections. Despite the May 12 decree you issued, instructing government authorities to respect freedom of assembly, the Baku city authorities refused to give permission to hold the rally. The rally organizers stated publicly that they would go ahead with the rally.
In an apparent attempt to stop the rally from taking place, in the days preceding May 21, police detained at least thirty opposition party and youth movement activists from their homes and work places. Police charged them with administrative offences, including breach of public order, and the courts sentenced them to up to five days of detention. It is unclear what specific alleged acts underlie these detentions.
According to media reports and information received by Human Rights Watch, on May 21, approximately two hours prior to the scheduled rally, police surrounded the party headquarters of Musavat, the Popular Front, and the Azerbaijan Democratic Party, and stopped people from approaching. Police also blocked the approaches to the May 28th Square, in Baku, where the rally was supposed to take place, and trains did not stop at the May 28th metro station. Police arrested opposition party members in various parts of the city who were on their way to attend the rally. Large numbers of police at the square then used batons to beat people who had gathered in groups and attempted to approach the square to participate in the rally. According to human rights observers, police used brutal force, beating the rally participants on their heads and bodies with batons, injuring dozens, and detaining more than one hundred.
Following a pattern established during the campaign for the October 2003 presidential elections, police also beat journalists who were reporting on the event. Police beat one journalist, Farid Teymurkhanli, from the independent Russian language Zerkalo newspaper, until he lost consciousness, despite the fact that he had been wearing a distinctive jacket with “press” written across it. (Wearing identifying clothing was one measure the press had taken after police beat many journalists during the protests that followed the October 2003 presidential elections, when police claimed that they could not identify the journalists amongst the crowd.) Teymurkhanli was hosptialized and had stitches to his neck.
The same day a group of approximately one hundred opposition party demonstrators gathered in front of the United States embassy, seeking support for their demands for democracy, and police again reacted to the peaceful demonstration with brutal force, beating and dispersing the participants.
You have acknowledged that freedom of assembly and expression are important elements in a framework for a free and fair election. The current restrictions in practice on these freedoms could jeopardize the integrity of the November election. They could also lead to escalating violence and unrest in the run-up period. Accordingly, we urge you to ensure that freedom of association and expression are protected in Azerbaijan, and to take further steps to create an environment in which free and fair elections can take place. In particular, we urge you to implement the recommendations from the Presidential Election 15 October 2003 OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission Report, and the Joint Recommendations on the Electoral Law and the Electoral Administration in Azerbaijan by the Venice Commission and the OSCE/ODIHR, 12-13 March 2004.
We thank you for your attention and look forward to a continued dialogue on these issues.
Europe and Central Asia division