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Azerbaijan’s Not-So-Subtle Campaign to Stifle Protest

Threats, Arrests Aim to Discourage Debate Over Upcoming Referendum

The message to Mehman Huseynov couldn’t have been clearer. The 26-year-old blogger – well known among Azerbaijan’s political opposition - was nabbed from his home on September 10 and taken to a police station, interrogated and threatened with torture. Before he was released the police chief took him aside with a parting request: “Go and write what happened.”

General view shows central Baku, Azerbaijan, June 23, 2016. © 2016 Reuters

When authoritarian governments want to silence criticism, they can do so quietly, or brazenly. Today, Azerbaijan is doing both. Police held their “friendly conversation” with Huesynov the day before a rally to protest the constitutional referendum on September 26. It’s hard to resist believing the police chief was counting on the blogger’s wide readership to think twice before going to the rally. They made it quite clear by also telling him they looked forward to seeing him at the rally.  Instead, the blogger wrote nothing about the detention and threats. The rally went ahead as planned, it was peaceful, and there were no arrests.

On September 17 and 18, Azerbaijan’s opposition political parties will hold more rallies against the referendum. In the last two days, police in nine cities have either rounded up or issued summonses to at least 38 political activists. No need to speculate here, the message is unmistakable: don’t attend tomorrow’s rally.

Khadija Ismayilova, Azerbaijan’s leading investigative reporter and human rights defender, has compiled a list based on phone calls she received from political activists’ lawyers and relatives. The situation is still fluid, but so far police have detained at least 27 political activists and released 7 without charge.  Relatives and lawyers of several detainees expect administrative court hearings soon on unspecified charges. Most of those detained are from the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan, whose leadership and rank-and-file membership has faced a slew of politically motivated arrests in recent years. A few are from the youth opposition group, NIDA (Azeri for exclamation point), which has also been hit with politically motivated arrests. Today, police camped out at the home of a NIDA activist on his wedding day, waiting for him. He wasn’t home and he never showed up.

The referendum is on constitutional amendments that greatly expand presidential power. They would abolish minimum age requirements for presidential and parliamentary candidates, extend from five to seven years the presidential term of office (there currently are no term limits), allow the president to dissolve parliament, and authorize the president to appoint several vice presidents, one of whom would serve in case the president became incapacitated.

These amendments would mark major changes to Azerbaijan’s political system and could be a long-run setback for democratic governance. They merit nationwide discussion. The organizers of this weekend’s events obtained rally permits, now the government should stop harassing people and trying to prevent them from having their say. 

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