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Azerbaijan: Peaceful Protest Crushed Ahead of Eurovision Final

Activist Sentenced for Distributing Sarcastic Postcards

May 29, 2012 Update

Police apprehended approximately 70 peaceful protesters demonstrating in central Baku on May 25, roughing them up and forcing them into police cars and vans. Police took many of them to the Sabail district main police station, where they were held for at least seven hours. About 60 detainees were kept in a single cell of approximately 12 square meters, making it impossible for any of them to sit, protesters told Human Rights Watch after their release.

Police released nine detainees, all women, at about midnight. Around 2 a.m. on May 26, the authorities started releasing the remaining detainees, one by one, after photographing and fingerprinting them and requiring them to write a statement explaining why they took part in the demonstration.

On the morning of May 26, police transferred the remaining 19 activists to the Sabail district court. They were tried for disobeying a police order, an administrative offense. The court sentenced three protesters to up to six days in detention; nine were fined up to 25 AZN (US$31) and released; and the other seven were issued warnings and released. The perfunctory trials lasted only several minutes, and those tried were not provided access to a lawyer of their choosing.

The Azerbaijani authorities should immediately release the peaceful protesters detained on administrative charges and investigate the arbitrary detentions of and unnecessary use of force against demonstrators on May 25. 


(May 25, Baku) - The Azerbaijani authorities detained over 70 peaceful protesters gathered on a seaside promenade in the capital, Baku, Human Rights Watch said today.

On May 22 the police detained an activist distributing postcards criticizing the government, refusing to allow him contact with a lawyer or his family for two days, Human Rights Watch said.He wassentenced to 10 days of administrative detention.

“The Eurovision week, instead of being a celebration for all, has been devastating for people trying to exercise their right to free speech in Azerbaijan,” said Giorgi Gogia, South Caucasus senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It’s incomprehensible that the authorities meet even the most basic attempts at free expression and protest with violence.”  

At approximately 5:30 p.m. today, protesters began to gather along the seaside promenade known locally as the boulevard in downtown Baku. There was a heavy presence of uniformed and plainclothes police in the immediate area and across other parts of Baku. As soon as protesters began to shout “Azadliq!” [“Freedom”], the police grabbed them, covered their mouths, forced them intonearby buses or police cars and drove them away. They had not been released by 11 p.m.

In at least one case, police detained a woman, approximately 50 years old, who was not actively participating in the protest, apparently because they recognized her from previous demonstrations. Police also forced Natik Abilov, a photographer for the opposition newspaper Azadlig, into a police vehicle after they asked him for a press pass and he could not produce it. He wore a vest with “Press” on it and was photographing the events.

This was the third peaceful anti-government demonstration forcibly broken upby police this week. Azerbaijani media reported that a protest outside of the home of a prominent opposition leader took place today without police interference.

Azerbaijan is a party to a number of human rights treaties, including the European Convention on Human Rights, which imposes obligations on the government to respect the right of assembly and to refrain in all circumstances from engaging in prohibited ill-treatment of protesters. The government also has a duty to investigate and remedy violations.

“The authorities should immediately release people picked up at peaceful protests and stop detaining people arbitrarily for legitimate speech,” Gogia said.

The authorities blocked other forms of public protest this week. At about 11 p.m. on May 22, police arrested 25-year-old Anar Aliyev as he distributed postcards to passers-by near by the May 28 subway station. The postcards criticized the government, including by mocking government slogans. For example, the government’s slogan designed for Eurovision, “Light your Fire!” was rewritten as “Fight your Liars!” in reference to government officials. 

The subway police detained Aliyev and then transferred him to the Nasimi district police station.  Aliyev’s lawyer, who was not allowed to meet with him until today, told Human Rights Watch that Aliyev alleges that in the police station one officer slapped him twice on the face, saying, “Why do you work against the state?” When Aliyev refused to answer officers’ questions about where he got the postcards, they threatened to rape him with a bottle. The police did not allow Aliyev to contact either his family or his lawyer and held him overnight in a room in the police station.

On the morning of May 23, the police took Aliyev to the Nasimi district court, where in a hearing lasting no more than three minutes, the court charged Aliyev with refusal to obey police orders and sentenced him to 10 days of administrative detention. The police denied Aliyev’s request prior to the hearing to have his own lawyer present, and the court hearing was so short that Aliyev was not allowed to make the request in the courtroom. He was then transferred to the facility for administrative prisoners.

Aliyev’s father began looking for him on the morning of May 23 after his son did not return home. He eventually went to the Khazar district police station on May 24 to file a missing person report. The police told him only then that his son had been detained, but would not tell him where or on what charges. That evening, Aliyev was allowed to call his family from the detention center and asked them to send a lawyer to assist him.

At an appeal court hearing today, Aliyev was represented by his own lawyer. His sentence was reduced to the two days he had already served and he was released. 

The authorities should promptly investigate why Aliyev was denied access to his family and a lawyer of his choosing, Human Rights Watch said.

“Handing out witty postcards, shouting “Freedom” ­– these are legitimate and basic attemptsto make sure different voices are heard amid the government’s campaign to present itself to Eurovision fans as a glamorous, modern, harmonious society,” Gogia said. “But no one is fooled. Azerbaijan has a very long way to go toward meeting its commitments on free expression and other fundamental human rights.” 

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