(Berlin) – Azerbaijan police violently dispersed a peaceful protest in central Baku on December 1, 2021, and detained dozens of protesters, Human Rights Watch said today. Among those detained was an opposition leader, Tofig Yagublu, who sustained multiple injuries in police custody. Yagublu, 60, said police severely beat him while videoing him and demanding that he say on camera that he would stop criticizing Azerbaijan’s leadership.
“Azerbaijani authorities have yet again demonstrated brazen contempt for people’s right to hold peaceful protests and used violence to quash dissent,” said Giorgi Gogia, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should conduct a prompt, impartial, and thorough investigation into law enforcement’s conduct and hold those responsible for abuses to account.”
Several dozen protesters gathered in central Baku to demand the release of an opposition activist, Saleh Rustamov, who has been detained since 2018 and was sentenced in February 2019 to seven years in prison on spurious money-laundering charges. Rustamov has been on a hunger strike since November 6, after parliament adopted an amnesty bill that is expected to release 3,000 prisoners but did not apply to his case.
The media reported that about 3 p.m. on December 1, when the rally was to start, large numbers of police cordoned off wide areas of the city center. Several dozen protesters nevertheless made their way to the city center, chanting “Freedom for Saleh Rustamov!” Uniformed police and security officials in civilian clothes almost immediately moved in and, without warning, forcibly restrained protesters, twisting their arms, and violently dragging them, including Yagublu, to police vehicles. Numerous videos posted on social media show police officers roughing up protesters.
Police rounded up about 40 protesters, put them on a bus, and released most shortly thereafter in the outskirts of Baku. Courts sentenced at least five to up to 30 days of administrative detention.
Police released Yagublu hours later in the outskirts of Baku. His face and body showed clear signs of abuse. In a video interview, Yagublu said that police first took him to a police station, where several other police officers, who he said were with the Interior Ministry’s Organized Crime Unit, handcuffed him, put a bag over his head, and beat him. They put him in a car and continued to beat him as they drove to the city’s outskirts.
In the video interview, Yagublu said that he felt as though he would suffocate from the bag on his head and as though he was going to die. He described the effects of being beaten: “I have to lift my eyelids with my fingers to look around. They beat me mainly in the face, head, back, arms, shoulders.”
The officers demanded that he say on camera that he would halt his political struggle and stop criticizing President Ilham Aliyev.
The police dropped Yagublu on the roadside, 70 kilometers from central Baku. He managed to call his daughter, who picked him up. Yagublu has multiple injuries to his face and head. A doctor who examined Yagublu found bruises on his head.
In a media statement, the Interior Ministry denied that police beat Yagublu or subjected him to any pressure, but stated that "the allegations will be investigated accordingly."
Azerbaijan’s blanket ban on protests in the central areas of Baku violates Azerbaijan’s international obligations to respect and protect the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Azerbaijan is a party to a number of human rights treaties, including the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which both obligate the government to respect the right to peaceful assembly and prohibit torture and other ill-treatment in custody. The government also has a duty to investigate and appropriately prosecute those responsible for violations, and to provide adequate remedies for victims.
“Yagublu’s horrific mistreatment was an attack on both an individual and the right to peaceful assembly,” Gogia said. “Given Azerbaijan’s poor record of addressing police abuses, the authorities need to ensure an effective, impartial investigation and hold to account those responsible.”