(Berlin, March 13, 2013) – Azerbaijani police used unnecessary force to disperse a peaceful protest in the capital, Baku, on March 10, 2013. More than a hundred protesters were arrested and released several hours later. At least 24 faced administrative trials for disobeying police and participating in an unsanctioned rally, and were fined or sentenced to jail. Three political activists were arrested two days before the protest on questionable accusations of planning violence at the protest.
The government should immediately release anyone still detained for participating in the peaceful protest and open an impartial investigation into excessive use of force, Human Rights Watch said.
“The Azerbaijani government shows no shame with its blatant trampling on people’s fundamental right to express their grievances peacefully,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should immediately release those detained and investigate police behavior.”
Hundreds of youth and opposition activists gathered in Fountain Square, in Baku’s center, at about 3 p.m. on March 10 to protest the non-combat death of a military conscript and alleged abuse of conscripts. The rally was announced and organized through social networks, mostly Facebook.
Authorities routinely ban demonstrations in the center of Baku, violating the right to freedom of assembly. Protest organizers had sought permission to hold the protest but received no response. The authorities had announced, though, that they would prevent any unsanctioned protest.
The protesters shouted slogans calling for justice for the death of the conscript and for the minister of defense to resign. Almost immediately, police in riot gear rushed into the square, dispersing the crowd.
Numerous video clips available online show police simultaneously using water cannons and teargas against the waves of protesters arriving at Fountain Square. The protesters offered no resistance. At the same time police started to round up the activists, roughing them up and taking them away.
A witness told Human Rights Watch that although police used a loudspeaker to call on the demonstrators to disperse, they almost immediately started to use water cannons and teargas, catching many protesters off-guard.
“The sudden use of the water cannon caused panic and I heard the sounds of people running in chaos,” the witness said. “Many were knocked down, wet, and could not move.”
Another protester recalled that the crowd refused to disperse and instead sat on the ground, but police directed the water cannon at them, knocking them over. Then police started to detain them. Within about an hour-and-a-half, the police had cleared all protesters from the square.
Azerbaijani police failed to act in accordance with the international standards that require them to exhaust nonviolent methods of crowd dispersal before reverting to force, and for force to be applied in an escalated manner, proportionate to the threat, Human Rights Watch said.
Police arrested dozens of demonstrators. Many were released later that day without charges. However, courts sentenced at least five people to six or seven days in detention on misdemeanor charges of participation in an unsanctioned demonstration and disobeying police orders, and fined at least 19 between 300 and 600 AZN (approximately US$380 and $760) for the same offenses.
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 detained at peaceful protests and stop detaining people arbitrarily for legitimate speech,” Denber said.
At least one journalist was detained while wearing his distinctive yellow reporter’s vest. He was later released after police deleted the images on his camera.
Police arrested the three opposition activists on March 8. They accused the three – Bakhtiyar Guliyev, Shahin Novruzlu, and Mahamad Azizov – of planning to incite violence at the rally. The three activists administer a Facebook page, “The Heydar Aliyev Page,” named for a former president. The page is a platform for caricature, satire, and criticism of the government.
Police claimed they found Molotov cocktails and drugs in the activists’ houses, and the prosecutor’s office and Ministry of National Security have alleged that the activists used Facebook to encourage people to use violence, including Molotov cocktails, at demonstrations.
The detainees’ parents strongly deny the accusations and contend that the weapons and drugs had been planted. On March 9, a Baku court remanded the activists to three months in pretrial detention.
Nearly all Azerbaijani television channels, including the state channel and the public broadcaster, showed two of the young men confessing to planning to use Molotov cocktails during the protests to challenge police and destabilize the situation. The televised statements, which appeared to be coached, raised fears that the activists were coerced or threatened in custody.
The Azerbaijani authorities have a record of pressing bogus charges, including for drug possession, to intimidate and silence investigative journalists.
A lawyer for Novruzlu told Human Rights Watch that he was not allowed to meet with his client in custody and was not at the remand hearing as neither he nor the family was notified about the time and place of the hearing.
“The spectacle of a televised confession in these circumstances raises very serious concerns of threats and unlawful coercion,” Denber said.
Authorities should ensure that all detainees have access to the lawyers of their choosing, Human Rights Watch said.
On March 1, the protest organizers applied to the Baku mayor’s office for a permit for the March 10 rally but received no response. On March 9, an Interior Ministry official stated publicly that the authorities would prevent any unsanctioned rally from taking place.
The Azerbaijani authorities have effectively banned all forms of peaceful protest from the center of Baku, and instead have forced all demonstrations into designated zones on the outskirts of the city. Since early 2006, authorities have not authorized a single opposition protest in the center of Baku.
Such a blanket ban against freedom of assembly in the central areas of Baku goes against Azerbaijan’s international obligations to respect freedom of assembly and expression, Human Rights Watch said. As the European Court of Human Rights has warned, “Sweeping measures of preventive nature to suppress freedom of assembly and expression […] do a disservice to democracy and often endanger it.”