(Berlin) – Azerbaijan police violently dispersed two peaceful protests in central Baku on October 19 and 20, 2019, Human Rights Watch said today. Police rounded up dozens of peaceful opposition and civic activists, beating and roughing them up while forcing them onto buses and into police cars.
Among those detained was the leader of the opposition Popular Front Party, Ali Karimli, who sustained numerous injuries at the hands of law enforcement officers while detained for several hours. Several other detained opposition activists told Human Rights Watch that they were severely beaten in police custody.
“Once again, the Azerbaijani government has shown complete disregard for people’s right to hold peaceful protests,” said Giorgi Gogia, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should immediately release all protesters and investigate any allegations of ill-treatment by law enforcement.”
The National Council of Democratic Forces, a coalition of opposition parties and activists in Azerbaijan, organized the demonstration in central Baku for October 19. They called for the release of political prisoners and for free and fair elections and protested growing unemployment and economic injustice. A day later, several dozen women’s rights activists held a protest over violence against women and femicide, and killings by domestic partners.
The authorities had turned down requests to hold the protests in central Baku.
In the early hours of October 19, the Baku metro stopped operating at three stations in the city center. Police cordoned off wide areas in the city center, blocking main roads leading to it. Media and activists also reported that the internet was cut in the vicinity of the area and mobile phone coverage was spotty.
Several hundred protesters still made their way to the city center around 3 p.m., when the rally was to start. They chanted “Resign” and “Freedom.” Uniformed police and security officials in civilian clothes almost immediately moved in without warning to forcefully restrain protesters, twisting their arms in apparently painful positions, and violently dragging and carrying them to police vehicles.
The forcible treatment and arrests were seen on numerous videos, widely available on social media.
According to the police, they detained 60 of the approximately 220 people who participated in the unsanctioned demonstration on October 19, releasing 42 with a warning, and sending 18 cases to administrative courts.
The authorities also detained at least 10 senior opposition party members ahead of the October 19 rally. Among them was a prominent opposition journalist, Seymur Hazi, who was detained on October 17 and sentenced the same day to 15 days of administrative detention. Hazi’s wife told Human Rights Watch that the circumstances of her husband’s detention and alleged offense were not clear. The family found out about the detention from the ministry’s hotline hours after he had been sentenced.
Police detained Karimli and several others shortly after he left his apartment at about 3 p.m. Police separated Karimli from the others and put him on a different bus. Karimli was released around 11 p.m. with several stitches on his head and multiple bruises on his face. He said in a media interview that several police officers had pulled his hair and banged his head against the side of the bus twice. Then he was transferred to the Khatai district police, where, he said, law enforcement personnel continued to abuse him, including one officer who used his foot to try to choke Karimli as he lay on the floor. He said police filmed the beating, demanding from him to state on camera that he would stop his criticism of the government. He was later transferred to the Interior Ministry’s hospital, where he received several stitches to his head, after which he was dropped off near his house.
In a statement on October 21, the prosecutor’s office claimed that Karimli resisted arrest, beat two police officers, and sustained the injuries to his forehead as he resisted arrest.
Police also detained Tofig Yagublu, a prominent opposition politician and former political prisoner, shortly before they took Karimli. Yagublu’s lawyer met with his client in custody on October 21. He told Human Rights Watch that Yagublu said that three or four policemen beat him repeatedly, while they ordered him to make a public statement “repenting” his actions and pledging to stop his political activity.
The lawyer said Yagublu had visible bruises on his right eye approximately two centimeters long and several swollen areas on his head, and had difficulty walking. The lawyer also said Yagublu said he was beaten on the shoulders and ribs when lying on the floor. Doctors at the detention center had noted wounds during the routine medical exam at the facility. On October 21, Yagublu was taken to the Interior Ministry's hospital for a medical exam, where doctors confirmed that he had bruised ribs.
Azerbaijani authorities have not yet issued a statement on Yagublu’s condition.
Police also dispersed several dozen women’s rights activists who gathered in the city center on October 20 to protest domestic violence. In particular the protesters wanted to highlight the recent killing of Leyla Mammadova, whose husband stabbed her to death in public, in front of her children and passersby. Police cordoned off the protest area and rounded up several activists, putting them on a bus and releasing them shortly thereafter.
While the constitution of Azerbaijan stipulates that groups may peacefully assemble after simply notifying the relevant government body in advance, in practice authorities require that gatherings obtain a permit issued by local municipalities.
Earlier in October, Baku municipal authorities had denied the opposition protest organizers’ requests to hold the demonstrations in the city center, offering an alternative space in the Lokbatan suburb, an area about 20 kilometers away that is not easily accessible by public transportation. In response to the women’s rights activists, the authorities responded that the proposed protest site had many shops and restaurants and was therefore unsuitable for a rally.
On October 19, the Internal Affairs Ministry and the Prosecutor’s Office issued a warning about holding unsanctioned rallies, saying that law enforcement agencies “will be authorized to prevent illegal actions and take serious measures, including criminal liability against those breaking the law.”
Azerbaijan effectively imposes a blanket ban on protests in the central areas of Baku, which violates Azerbaijan’s international obligations to respect and protect freedom of assembly and expression, Human Rights Watch said. As the European Court of Human Rights has warned, “[s]weeping measures of a preventive nature to suppress freedom of assembly and expression […] do a disservice to democracy and often endanger it.”
Azerbaijan is a party to a number of human rights treaties, including the European Convention on Human Rights, which obliges 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.
On October 19, the European Union issued a statement calling on Azerbaijani authorities to release all those detained and to ensure that freedom of assembly can be fully exercised in line with the country’s international obligations.
In her statement, the Council of Europe human rights commissioner, Dunja Mijatović condemned “the disproportionate use of force,” urging the authorities to ensure “effective investigations into allegations of ill treatment.”
The Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly rapporteurs on Azerbaijan and the United States Embassy also expressed deep concerns about the police dispersal of the peaceful protests.
“Although the demonstration was unsanctioned, the police should not have used force to disperse protesters who posed no threat,” Gogia said. “Freedom of assembly is a fundamental right, and the Azerbaijani authorities are obligated to tolerate peaceful protests, even in Baku’s center.”