Police detain an opposition activist in Baku, Azerbaijan, March 11, 2011.

Update
Azerbaijan's political opposition attempted to hold a rally today, March 12, but the authorities refused to allow the event to go forward. At around 2 pm, several hundred people arrived in small groups at the rally venue, Fountain Square, a pedestrian street in downtown Baku, shouting "Freedom" and "Resign." Security personnel greatly outnumbered the demonstrators. As soon as the demonstrators gathered, hundreds of uniformed policemen entered the square from an underground parking lot and swiftly dispersed the crowd, roughing up and detaining many. Uniformed policemen locked arms to form a long line. They advanced on demonstrators and pushed them out of the square, kicking some and detaining others.

According to Baku's Main Police Department the police detained 50 demonstrators, 20 of whom face administrative punishment for disobeying police orders. The authorities are using the "disobeying police order" charge as a ground to punish those who participated in the peaceful rally.

The Mobile Group of Lawyers, a group uniting several lawyers and providing pro bono legal aid to detainees, tried throughout the day to get information about the detainees and their places of detention. Several of the lawyers went to police stations to request access to the detainees, but were told that none of the protesters were being held at those stations. Yet the lawyers told Human Rights Watch that they learned that some of the detainees had indeed been brought to those precincts.

The government has not allowed any public assemblies in downtown Baku for several years, but now seems especially determined to thwart any unauthorized rallies in the country.

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(Baku) - Azerbaijani authorities detained dozens of people on their way to protests in Baku on March 11, 2011, arrested social media activists in an effort to prevent public rallies, and have suspended the work of a human rights organization, Human Rights Watch said today. The actions come in the wake of the mass protests in the Middle East and follow calls by Azerbaijani social media and opposition activists for rallies to protest government policies and corruption.

"Azerbaijani authorities should immediately release all the activists who were detained in response to the planned protests in Baku," said Rachel Denber, director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch. "Rounding people up this way is wrong and counterproductive."

The police rounded up at least 32 people in various parts of downtown Baku who had intended to participate in the rally. Most were held for a few hours and released after police took statements from them, but courts sentenced at least nine people to administrative detention, with sentences ranging from five days to eight days.

Over the past five weeks, Azerbaijani authorities have arrested at least five social media and political opposition activists on fabricated charges of drug possession, hooliganism, and draft evasion. Some of them had used Facebook and other social media to call for a youth protest on March 11, and others had used social media to call for a mass demonstration on March 12 by Azerbaijan's political opposition parties.

On March 10, the Justice Ministry suspended the Azerbaijan Human Rights House (AHRH), a nongovernmental organization that assisted local groups with international human rights advocacy on Azerbaijan and served as a resource center and site for other conferences and training sessions. The group is a member of the International Human Rights House Network and was registered in Azerbaijan in May 2007.

March 11 Detentions
Some of the 32 people rounded up on March 11 were arrested at public parks near the Baku railway station; others near the university on Nariman Avenue; and at least four as they sat in a downtown café. They were taken to various police stations in Baku's suburbs.

Human Rights Watch visited Baku's Narimanov district police station No. 18 and Khatai district station No. 37, where about 15 people in all were being held. While Human Rights Watch was at the Narimanov station, police refused to let a lawyer see his client, even though the lawyer had all the necessary credentials.

Those who were released after a few hours were warned not to participate in "unsanctioned" demonstrations. The nine who were sentenced on misdemeanor charges to administrative detention were convicted of disobeying police orders in Nasimi and Yasamal district courts.

Arrests of Activists
The social media activists arrested recently are being held on a range of fabricated criminal and administrative charges. In all cases the detainees were denied access to lawyers of their own choosing until after they had been remanded or sentenced. At least two were not allowed to inform their families of their whereabouts from the outset and the authorities would not confirm their detention or whereabouts to family members for several days.  Refusing to reveal the whereabouts of a person who has been deprived of liberty deprives the person of the protection of the law and constitutes an enforced disappearance, a serious human rights violation.

"The charges against these activists are completely without foundation," Denber said. "They are a thin pretext to silence government critics."

In at least three cases, the authorities are holding the activists on administrative charges just long enough to prevent them from participating in the planned protests.

On March 8, police detained Rashadat Akhundov, a 27-year-old social media activist who was one of the first to call for the March 11 protest. Elchin Namazov, Akhundov's lawyer, told Human Rights Watch that police in civilian clothes approached him as he was running errands in Baku and demanded his documents. When Akhundov replied that he did not have them but could ask his father to get them, the policemen grabbed him, twisted his arms, stuffed him into a car and drove away. His mother witnessed the incident and tried to intervene, but was shooed away.

Akhundov was taken to Baku police station No. 37, where two police officers whom he had not seen before wrote a complaint against him, saying that he had disobeyed police orders. That day the Khatai District Court convicted him of disobeying police orders and sentenced him to five days of administrative detention. At his trial Akhundov refused the services of a state-appointed lawyer, but the court refused to wait for his lawyer to arrive.

Although administrative offense cases are open to the public, police refused to allow Akhundov's family or media to attend the hearing.

His lawyer appealed the decision on March 10.

Also on March 8, police arrested Sahavat Sultanov, deputy head of the opposition party Musavat's youth wing and an active social media user. Sultanov, 29, had actively promoted the March 12 opposition rally through his Facebook contacts and other outreach.  A man in civilian clothes approached Sultanov as he was getting into his car after leaving a pharmacy. The man opened the rear passenger door and jumped in, telling Sultanov to drive.

When Sultanov protested and tried to get the man out of the car, several other men, apparently plainclothes policemen, approached and pushed him back into the car. One of them drove the car to the Karadakh district police station. Namazov, who is also Sultanov's lawyer, said the policemen discussed in Sultanov's presence how they would break traffic rules while driving Sultanov's car, record this on a mobile phone, and later charge him with traffic violations.

Police then charged Sultanov with "auto hooliganism" - violating traffic rules, an administrative offense. In a hearing that lasted only minutes a judge sentenced him to five days of administrative detention. The judge also denied Sultanov's request to be represented by a lawyer of his choice. He was not allowed to contact his family, and his lawyer found out about his detention and conviction by accident as he was visiting Akhundov in the same detention center.

On March 4, police detained Dayanat Babayev, a member of the opposition Popular Front Party's (PFP) Youth Committee and an active Facebook and social network user. Babayev, 21, was very critical of the government in his postings but promoted peaceful public protests. His family and friends heard nothing until March 6, when they learned that he had been convicted, allegedly for disobeying a police order, an administrative offense, and sentenced to 10 days in detention.

The court ruling says that Babayev had disobeyed police orders and insulted policemen who approached him to warn him not to use foul language while talking on the phone in public.  Asabali Mustafayev, Babayev's lawyer, who visited him in the detention center on March 7, said that Babayev was rounded up in an internet café in downtown Baku. Fifteen minutes after he arrived, three plainclothes policemen came in, twisted his arms and took him away with no explanation.

He was taken to Nasimi district police station No. 22, where he was told that three policemen there were filing a complaint against him for disobeying their orders and cursing at them. A court sentenced him following a brief hearing and refused to allow him to be represented by counsel of his own choosing.

Also on March 4, police arrested Bakhtiar Hajiyev in the town of Ganja for draft evasion. Hajiyev, 29, a Harvard University graduate and a member of the youth movement "Positive Change," ran for  parliament from his hometown, Ganja, in November 2010. He is an active social media user and had posted messages in support of the March 11 protests. In one of his posts he called on police not to harm people who might come out to the streets expressing their grievances. He was arrested two hours after he posted the statement.

Hajiyev was remanded to one month in pre-trial detention and has alleged to his lawyer that he was ill-treated in custody.

The authorities have been investigating Hajiyev for draft evasion since January and had told him not to leave Ganja. Hajiyev indeed had avoided the military draft but had asked to be allowed to perform alternative service. Police accused him of leaving the town despite their warning.

Hajiyev's lawyer, Elchin Namazov, who visited him on March 5, said that Hajiyev bore clear marks of ill-treatment. Namazov told Human Rights Watch he had seen an open wound on Hajiyev's neck, bruises on his eyes, and a hematoma on the left side of his nose. Hajiyev had problems moving and turning his body left or right.

Hajiyev told his lawyer that police in Ganja hit him on the back and slapped his face. They also allegedly forced him to sit on a chair, while one policeman forced his head down bellow his legs and hit him repeatedly on the back. Namazov arranged for Hajiyev to be examined by a doctor in the detention center. The doctor made a short report for Namazov, which he was able to keep. Namazov filed a complaint with the Ganja prosecutor's office requesting an investigation into Hajiyev's treatment.

On February 5, police arrested Jabbar Savalanli, another member of the Popular Front Party's Youth Committee. Savalanli, 20, is a second year student at Sumgait State University and an active social media user. He had posted several comments that were very critical of the Azerbaijani leadership and called for their resignations.

Savalanli was arrested at his apartment building entrance and taken to the Sumgait city police station, where police searched him and said they found 0.74 grams of marijuana in his coat pocket. Two days later the Sumgait District Court remanded him to a two-month pre-trial custody.  Savalanli's lawyer, Asabali Mustafayev, told Human Rights Watch that the drugs had been planted on Savalanli and that he had been forced to write a confession. Mustafayev was allowed to meet with him only after the initial interrogation.

A forensic narcotics examination on Savalanli made public on March 9 stated that forensic experts could not identify any signs of drug dependency but could not exclude the possibility that he had used drugs. Mustafayev's requests for an alternative examination were denied.

This is not the first time a government critic was charged with drug possession. Mirza Sakit, a satirist and reporter for the opposition daily Azadlig was arrested in June 2006 and served nearly three years after being convicted on similar charges.

Suspension of Azerbaijan Human Rights House (AHRH)
On March 10, the Justice Ministry summoned an Azerbaijan Human Rights House representative and handed her a letter ordering the organization to cease all work immediately. A ministry official said the organization was in breach of June 2009 amendments to the Law on Nongovernmental Organizations. The amendments require all international groups or their local affiliates in Azerbaijan to sign separate agreements with the government allowing them to operate. The group had been registered and operating since 2007, and the amended law does not state whether the requirement applies retroactively to groups already registered, nor does it define the nature of such an agreement or what it should contain or consist of.

The ministry had not issued any prior warnings that the group was violating the law nor did it provide a grace period to rectify the problem. Instead the ministry ordered the organization shut down immediately.

"This is a blatant example of Azerbaijani government using seemingly benign bureaucratic rules to silence civil society groups," Denber said. "The government is clearly trying to prevent human rights groups from engaging in public outreach or mobilization."

The shutdown came after two other episodes earlier this year. On February 10, high-level police officials came to the office after youth activists held a news conference there in which they criticized government policy. The police asked for the names of everyone who visited the offices and demanded to be informed of all the organization's planned activities. The police also threatened to "convince" the landlord of the apartment rented by the organization to terminate the lease and evict the group.

A staff member told Human Rights Watch that police also spoke to neighbors in the building in an effort to find people who were unhappy about the meetings held there. Before leaving, police threatened to call the organization's manager every second day until the office was closed.

In January, the group had arranged and participated in a trip to Strasbourg for several Azerbaijani human rights defenders to bring the country's worsening human rights situation to the attention of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly. Shortly after the trip, the speaker of the Azerbaijani parliament made public statements that the organization's work was "negatively affecting Azerbaijan's international image" and urged the appropriate government authorities to "take steps" against such groups.

"The timing and context of the ministry's decision makes clear that the suspension is not a technical or bureaucratic matter but rather a politically motivated decision," Denber said.

This is not the first time the Azerbaijani authorities have used bureaucratic grounds to close human rights groups. In the lead-up to Azerbaijan's 2008 presidential election a court closed the Election Monitoring Center, an independent domestic election observer organization, after the Justice Ministry found "inaccuracies" in the group's registration documents. The group has been unsuccessfully trying to reregister ever since.

Azerbaijan should strictly limit the grounds on which nongovernmental organizations can be denied registration or liquidated to legitimate grounds under international law, Human Rights Watch said.

"The government should stop its arbitrary and malevolent interference with the work of independent civil society groups and allow Human Rights House to continue its work," Denber said.