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The Azerbaijani government’s campaign of violence and intimidation against opposition candidates and supporters has extinguished the possibility of free and fair parliamentary elections on November 6, Human Rights Watch said in a briefing paper released today.

The 28-page briefing paper documents mass arrests, beatings and other forms of intimidation, as well as restrictions on campaigning and an overwhelming pro-government media bias that have undermined the integrity of the vote.

“People cannot vote freely in an election when the authorities are beating up opposition supporters and preventing candidates from campaigning,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Azerbaijan's history of election fraud and abuse is threatening to repeat itself.”

Human Rights Watch documented how police violence and arbitrary arrests have been endemic during the campaign period. Police have beaten and detained hundreds of opposition activists during attempts to hold rallies in the center of the capital, Baku. In at least one incident, police also brutally beat detainees in a police station after arrest.

Many of the demonstrators have been sentenced to several days in prison for offenses against public order. The authorities have particularly targeted youth movement activists, detaining and harassing their members. The recent arrests of three members of the opposition-oriented youth movement Yeni Fikir (New Thinking), which the authorities say is trying to violently overthrow the government, are of concern. While Human Rights Watch is not in a position to investigate the government’s allegations against Yeni Fikir, the fact that these allegations occur during a government campaign of intimidation and harassment of opposition groups and youth activists suggest that the cases may be politically motivated.

At the same time, the authorities have heavily interfered in the election process in favor of government-sponsored candidates. The government has stacked the Central Election Commission and local election commissions with its supporters. Moreover, it has failed to adopt measures proposed by the international community aimed at reducing the likelihood of fraud, such as changing the composition of the election commissions.

Local government authorities and law enforcement officers have obstructed opposition and independent candidates from holding meetings with voters. Police have also detained campaign workers for opposition and independent candidates and warned them to stop their political work.

“The government is simply unwilling to allow a free and fair election,” said Cartner. “We are concerned that this could lead to a bloody crackdown against protesters.”

The 2003 presidential election, which the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe found to be fraudulent, was followed by violent protests met with excessive force from police and other law enforcement agencies that killed at least one protester. In the wake of the political upheavals following falsified elections in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, the opposition has raised expectations that democratic change is now possible in Azerbaijan as well.

The international community has made significant efforts to encourage free and fair elections. But the United States, a key player in the region, has sent mixed signals about how strongly it will respond if the elections are found to be fraudulent.

Human Rights Watch called on the Azerbaijani government to immediately stop harassing opposition and independent activists, to allow freedom of assembly and to desist from intimidation on election day. Human Rights Watch further called on the international community to ensure that it will not be “business as usual” with Azerbaijan if that country delivers another round of seriously flawed elections.

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