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The October 15 presidential elections in Azerbaijan took place at a time of significant political uncertainty in the country. On April 20, 2003 Heidar Aliev, who had dominated Azerbaijani political life since returning to power in 1993, following a long career as Azerbaijan’s KGB (internal security) chief, its Communist Party leader, and a member of the USSR’s Politburo, suddenly disappeared from public view after collapsing during a public address.[17] The presidential apparatus rapidly mobilized fully around the candidacy of Heidar’s son, Ilham Aliev, and waged a campaign of bureaucratic interference and political intimidation that made a free and fair pre-election campaign environment impossible.[18]

The Bias of the Central Election Commission

Ignoring the core recommendations of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission and OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODHIR), the government of Azerbaijan appointed a Central Election Commission (CEC) that was heavily stacked in favor of the government and effectively excluded the opposition from the decision-making process.[19] The CEC’s lack of independence was clearly apparent throughout. The CEC excluded major opposition candidates—such as Rasul Guliev, the chair of the Azerbaijan Democratic Party (ADP) and a former speaker of parliament, and Eldar Namazov, a former head of President Heidar Aliev’s presidential apparatus—from registration on several grounds, some of them spurious, others unsubstantiated and unclear.[20] The CEC registered both Heidar and Ilham Aliev as candidates, as well as four other minor pro-governmental candidates. It also registered several major opposition candidates, including Etibar Mamedov of the National Independence Party of Azerbaijan (ANIP), Ali Kerimli of the Popular Front of Azerbaijan-Reformers faction (APFP-R), Isa Gambar of Musavat ("Equality"), and three other opposition candidates.[21]

The CEC proved ineffective in addressing violations committed against opposition candidates and regularly ignored abuses of the election code by pro-government candidates. When four separate opposition rallies were disrupted by police violence that left scores of people injured, the CEC sided with the government, adopting the fictitious version of events advanced by the Ministry of Internal Affairs: “the participants of the protest ignored demands made by the police and reacted aggressively to the local population, insulting them as well as trying to cause clashes. The protesters also called on the local inhabitants for civil disobedience and the overthrow of state institutions.”[22]

Obstruction of Local Rallies

Local authorities, particularly the local executive authorities, constantly attempted to frustrate opposition candidates’ campaigning efforts by refusing to grant adequate venues for opposition rallies, impeding access to the venues itself, and lowering attendance by forcing employees and students to remain at work or school, even outside normal work hours. Such interference decreased only in the days before the election, when hundreds of international monitors began to arrive in Azerbaijan.

Almost without exception, opposition rallies were assigned inadequate venues. For example, Baku executive authorities confined two rallies of the most popular opposition candidate, Musavat leader Isa Gambar,[23] to small movie theaters that seated only 500 persons each, and hundreds of police violently dispersed the crowds that gathered for the rallies when the venue proved inadequate, injuring dozens of civilians, journalists, and party leaders gathered outside. In Saatli, the executive authority confined both the October 2 ANIP/APFP and the October 6 Musavat rallies to the small public space in front of the local house of culture, even though the main public square located just one hundred meters away was available. In Mingeshevir, an October 8 appearance by Musavat leader Isa Gambar was assigned to a cul-de-sac street on the outskirts of the town near the local stadium. In the town of Ali Bairamli, the executive authority assigned the tiny 280-seat house of culture, located in a distant part of town, as a venue for an appearance by Isa Gambar, ignoring requests for the central and easily accessible Azadliq Square, which had been the venue for pro-Ilham Aliev events.

Even when permission for rallies was granted, local executive authorities went to great lengths to limit attendance at opposition events. In some case, they attempted to simply block access to events altogether. At the October 6 Saatli rally, Human Rights Watch found local officials parked by the main access roads from the villages, carefully noting who went into town that morning. Several cars heading towards town turned around when they noticed the officials. Thirty minutes prior to the rally, Human Rights Watch observed as police officials blocked off all the main access roads into town with large trucks, effectively sealing off the area where the rally was to take place. Similarly, in Mingeshevir, local officials blocked off the main road into town and suddenly began cutting down trees and blocking other roads, and directing minibus traffic away from the rally site, just before a Musavat rally was about to start.

Local executive authorities also frequently attempted to lower attendance at rallies by forcing municipal employees, factory workers, teachers, and students to remain at work or in class, even when rallies took place outside normal work hours. In Mingeshevir, Human Rights Watch found that the authorities had locked between 3,000 and 5,000 workers inside the electrical plant during an October 7 Musavat rally for a mandatory and unprecedented “safety event.” In anticipation of a Sunday, October 6, Musavat rally in Saatli, the local executive authority took the unprecedented step of declaring Sunday a work day, requiring students to go to school and officials to work. On that same day, the executive authority in Ali Bairamli organized an unprecedented “Teacher’s Day” event at Azadliq Square to coincide with and draw down attendance from a Musavat rally, and made attendance mandatory for teachers, students, and government officials.[24]

Opposition activists also faced great difficulties putting up campaign posters, often risking arrest and police violence. In a typical case, which occurred on October 1, three Musavat activists were detained and beaten by police in the Nardaran district of Baku while putting up posters for Isa Gambar a day before a rally. While the activists were putting up the posters, a police captain stopped his car, began yelling, “You bastards, pull down those stupid posters,” and assaulted the men. The police captain and other police pulled down all the posters, beat the activists to the ground, and then took them to the local police station, where the activists were again beaten. When the activists tried to assert their rights under the election code, the beatings became more vicious. Similarly, the head of the local executive authority in Saatli came to the local ANIP office in Saatli as the head of the local branch was putting up ANIP posters in anticipation of the next day’s ANIP rally. The head of the executive authority began cursing the ANIP branch chief and pulling down the posters, and threatened the activists present. When the police arrived, they arrested the ANIP branch chair. Dozens of similar incidents took place throughout Azerbaijan, and shopkeepers were often threatened by government officials if they put up opposition posters. As a result, there were very few opposition posters, in sharp contrast with the ubiquitous posters and billboards for Ilham Aliev, including at many government offices and public buildings.

Official Violence and Intimidation

Many pre-election rallies in Azerbaijan took place free of police violence, with the police professionally carrying out their duties—particularly as the number of international monitors increased in the days prior to the election. However, police abuse and vigilante violence was a regular occurrence during the pre-election period. Together with the massive deployment of police in riot gear at even small opposition rallies, the level of police abuse created a palpable climate of intimidation at almost all opposition events, even those that proceeded peacefully. In addition, executive authority members fomented and participated in violence against opposition members, and did so with impunity.

Human Rights Watch documented dozens of cases of severe police beatings, some of them involving broken bones or similarly severe injuries, in the pre-election period. In these instances, the police initiated the violence, responding to activities that are considered acceptable in a democratic society, such as the carrying of banners or the shouting of political slogans. In many instances of police violence, the victims were then brought to court and sentenced to terms of administrative detention[25] for periods up to fifteen days for “resisting” or “insulting” the police, even if the evidence before the judges clearly indicates that the accused were the victims of police abuse—a clear indication of the lack of judicial independence in Azerbaijan.

Some of the most severe cases of police violence documented by Human Rights Watch involved ADP activists who held bi-weekly pickets in front of the CEC building to protest the CEC’s decision to deny the candidate registration of ADP leader Rasul Guliev. The police consistently responded with violence. In a typical case on October 3, the police stormed a group of about fifty ADP protesters who were simply holding banners and shouting the name of their leader. The police chased four women activists into a garden and beat one of them unconscious with their rubber batons. Similar police violence went on for months before the election. Fuad Hassanov, the ADP secretary for international affairs and founder of the human rights NGO “Against Violence,” detailed a police attack that occurred during a demonstration in favor of fair elections on May 25:

There were buses filled with police already [at Fizuli Square], with truncheons. They didn’t even allow us to gather. We realized we couldn’t hold a rally, so we decided to just shout our slogans. At that very moment, the police started beating us with truncheons, and kicking us. I was pushed into a minibus. … They continued beating us on the head and face, my lip was bleeding. All of us were beaten like this.[26]

Human Rights Watch has documented dozens of similar accounts of pre-election police violence. On September 26, 2003, twenty-five persons were seriously injured by police when they tried to hold a protest at Fizuli Square in Baku. Latifa Allaverdieva, whose thirty-year-old sister was still bedridden with a knee injury one month after the attack, explained how the police began beating them immediately after the protesters began shouting the name of ADP leader Rasul Guliev:

We came out of the underground, a group of women shouting “Rasul-bey! Rasul-bey!” Immediately, the police started beating us with truncheons. We started to disperse. There were many police, five or ten for each woman. They separated us, and beat us individually. [After], I saw my sister laying on the ground, badly injured…she was unconscious.[27]

Elderly protesters were not spared: seventy-year-old Famil Hassanov had several ribs broken after being beaten by police at a July 21 protest in front of the CEC and was bedridden for a month; seventy-three-year-old Ramitin Makhsudova received a hip injury when police beat her while she was assisting a young woman during a September protest, and a wrist injury during an October 1 protest in front of the CEC.[28]

On September 21, police violently dispersed thousands of Musavat supporters gathered at rallies at two small cinemas in Baku, injuring scores of peaceful activists. Panah Husseinov, a former prime minister and head of the Khalq party (which supported the candidacy of Isa Gambar), was attacked by a group of police and pro-government protesters who beat him severely and broke his nose and wrist.[29] Anar Natikoglu, a journalist who was covering the rally for Yeni Musavat (Azerbaijan’s main opposition paper, linked to the Musavat party), explained how the police rudely told the gathered crowd to “Get away from here, you bastards,” and then attacked a group of gathered journalists:

We were pushed inside the little [entrance] hall and the doors were closed. The police began to beat us very violently and we couldn’t escape. I was on the ground, and they were beating me with truncheons and kicking me. The beatings lasted for about ten minutes. Forty policemen beating twenty people—you can imagine what it was like. I was badly hurt, and unable to stand. Two activists tried to help me. The police beat me again on my back and I fell down again, and they began kicking me. I was about to faint when the activists pulled me away.[30]

On the same day, police and pro-government supporters violently attacked rallies held by Etibar Mamedov (ANIP) and Ali Kerimli (APFP) in Lenkoran and Massaly district, injuring many people who had come to attend the rally. The candidates told Human Rights Watch that they had been personally targeted during the attacks, and that the police and pro-government supporters appeared to be working together.[31]

Local officials, particularly the executive authorities, were also directly involved in fomenting violence against the opposition, and in some cases participated directly in the violence. During the October 2 ANIP/APFP rally in Saatli, the head of the executive authority, Gulhussein Akhmedov and a large number of his relatives—including two brothers and several cousins—together with other members of the executive authority beat opposition supporters. Mubaris F., who does not belong to any political party, was one of many witnesses who recounted how the executive authority members and their relatives gathered at the rally holding axe and spade handles, and proceeded to violently beat the attendees:

We were few in numbers, and the main group of [attendees] was in front of us. Suddenly, we saw a group of people with posters of Heidar and Ilham Aliev, shouting pro-government slogans. The group had axe and spade handles. At first they hit Abdelali [Ibragimov] very hard from behind on his jaw [which was broken in two places.] He fell down and they started kicking him. I helped him stand up and we tried to get away. Two more provocateurs came and took him out of my hands, took him into a shop and locked the door. They were beating him more there. … Among the group was Khanhussein [Akhmedov, the brother of the head of the executive authority]. He was leading the group that was doing the beating [as was his cousin]. … The police did nothing. They [police] were all around us during the beating.[32]

Many others were beaten by the same group of executive authority officials and their relatives, both during and after the rally.

Restrictions on Monitoring Efforts

The government of Azerbaijan severely restricts the activities of NGOs in general, and the authorities commonly exploit onerous registration procedures to impede the registration of NGOs whose pro-government stance is questionable. The NGO law specifically limits the rights of local NGOs to monitor elections, prohibiting any NGO that receives foreign funding from serving as election monitors.[33] In effect, this clause prohibits the entire NGO community, including well-trained election monitoring NGOs, such as For the Sake of Civil Society, from monitoring elections, since almost every NGO in Azerbaijan receives some of its funding from the international community.

Local NGOs have been able to mitigate the impact of this restriction by registering their members as individual monitors, a right granted under the Election Code, and opposition political parties also registered many of their members as election observers. Effective monitoring by local NGOs provides one of the most reliable safeguards against massive fraud. In failing to freely allow domestic NGOs to monitor elections, the government of Azerbaijan has prevented transparency of the electoral process, which has facilitated the fraud and voting irregularities that have occurred in elections in recent years.

Human rights activists and voter rights educators also faced attack and violent interference with their work that appears to have been organized by local executive authorities.[34] On September 25, 2003, a group of women’s human rights activists—including Novella Jafaroglu, the chair of the Association for the Protection of Women’s Rights; Saadat Benaniarly, head of the Azerbaijan chapter of the International Society for Human Rights; and Sadagat Pashaeva, a staff member of the Association for the Protection of Women’s Rights—traveled to the enclave of Nakhchivan to open the first independent newspaper in the region, Bizim Nakhchivan (“Our Nakhchivan”) and to arrange for the visit of a group of six Serbian election voter educators who had come to the region to educate young voters on a project sponsored by the Open Society Institute.[35]

Hours before the arrival of the Serbian delegation, on September 27, Jafaroglu, Benaniarly, Pashaeva and Melhat Nassibova, the director of the Nakhchivan human rights resource center, arrived at the center to find a group of about fifty women in front of the building. As the four got out of their vehicle, one of the women outside shouted at them, “Are you the ones who brought the Americans and the Europeans here? We only need Iran, because Iran feeds us.” The crowd of women then attacked the activists, beating them and pelting them with tomatoes. The four then ran into the resource center and called the police, who appeared one hour later. When police and security officials finally arrived, they advised the women to leave Nakhchivan, saying they could not guarantee their security. The activists explained that they were expecting Serbian guests and could not leave.[36]

The next morning Jafaroglu, Benaniarly, and Pashaeva went to Nakhchivan airport, where they were again attacked. They were about to board their plane when a woman approached them and said, “Yes, leave, and never come back again!” She then began to beat the women. A crowd of others who had been lingering nearby soon joined in the beating. Saadat Benaniarly, one of the activists, told Human Rights Watch: “Novella was on the floor, and they were kicking her and throwing eggs and tomatoes at us, all the contents of their bags. A woman was beating me, and I was holding on to a steel pipe, trying not to fall. Another woman came and started beating my head into the pipe. Sadagat [Pashaeva] had her head banged into the floor.”[37] The women were beaten for about fifteen minutes.

During the incident, government security personnel at the airport disappeared and did nothing to attempt to stop the beatings. Pointing to the unwillingness of the local authorities and the airport security to come to their assistance, the activists believe that the attacks were organized by the Nakhchivan local administration, and filed a complaint with security officials in Baku. The activists later received a letter from Minister of Interior Ramil Usubov stating vaguely that the responsible persons had been reprimanded, but not identifying who had been responsible, or how they had been reprimanded.[38]

Also on September 28, the team of Serbian election educators was prevented from carrying out three scheduled workshops aimed at educating young voters. Police came to the training at the Nakhchivan resource center and ordered the participants to leave. The police also ordered a second team of Serbian election educators on the road to Ordubat to turn around. Security officials then told the observers that they would not be allowed to conduct their workshops or stay in Nakhchivan, ordered them to leave the enclave, took them to the airport, and put them on a plane to Baku.[39]

October 15, 2003: Election Day Fraud

With the constant obstruction of opposition rallies, the regular police and vigilante violence, the beatings and arrests of hundreds of opposition activists, and an administration openly siding with the campaign of Ilham Aliev, the presidential elections were already far from fair prior to election day itself.

The international community, particularly the OSCE, the Council of Europe, and various embassies including of the United States and European states invested heavily to prevent the kind of massive fraud that had marred all previous elections—including the 2000 parliamentary elections, characterized by the OSCE as a “crash course in the different methodologies of manipulation.”[40] Western embassies financed tools for an entirely revised voting day procedure—transparent election boxes, complex protocols, and other safeguards. The OSCE deployed the largest-ever international election monitoring presence in Azerbaijan, deploying more than 600 monitors for the election.

Despite these safeguards, officials throughout the country committed fraud at polling stations using similar techniques and on a scale that indicated national coordination. The OSCE observer mission, which declared that the elections “failed to meet OSCE commitments and other international standards,” found “significant irregularities during voting and widespread fraudulent practices during the counting and tabulation of election results.”[41] Among the practices witnessed by international observers during the voting was ballot-stuffing, the use of ballots pre-marked for Ilham Aliev, the use of non-numbered ballots, the issuance of ballots to voters not on voter lists, the addition of large numbers of people to voter lists on election day, multiple voting, the turning away of large numbers of opposition voters who had been left off the voters list, and blatant attempts to influence or intimidate voters—in some cases, Aliev supporters accompanied voters into the voting booth.[42] Opposition monitors were subjected to serious intimidation when they tried to stop abuses, and were sometimes expelled from the voting stations.[43]

The violations observed by international monitors increased during the counting process. At many polling stations, opposition observers and even opposition commission members were ordered to leave during the counting process, in flagrant violation of the election code. Although vote counting was supposed to start immediately after the polls closed, at the polling station observed by Human Rights Watch, the chairwoman of the election commission stated that she was tired and needed a nap, and walked away with the voter list, a crucial document to prevent fraud, for one hour. International observers found that procedures to prevent fraud were widely ignored, and that ballots had been unaccountably inflated in many polling stations. Many protocols (the voting tabulations for individual polling stations) were delivered incomplete or even blank to the higher-level constituency commissions, creating what the OSCE described as “one of the gravest lapses in the election procedures, creating widespread opportunities for fraud.”[44]

The level of fraud in the election is perhaps best indicated by what the OSCE politely calls “implausible” results at individual voting stations. One hundred thirty-five polling stations reported that every valid vote in their station had been in favor of Ilham Aliev; in thirty-five of these stations, the voter turn-out was reported as an impossible 100%.[45] The determination of the Azerbaijani authorities to carry out such blatant fraud in front of international monitors seriously calls into question the commitment of the Azerbaijani authorities to democratic practices and its obligations to the Council of Europe and the OSCE. It poses a difficult question for international organizations that monitor elections: how can they be effective at preventing mass fraud when the administration is bent on ensuring its retention of power at all costs?

17 The Azerbaijani government announced Heidar Aliev’s death on December 12, 2003.

18 The human rights abuses committed during the pre-election period were detailed in a twenty-page briefing paper released by Human Rights Watch on the eve of the elections, Azerbaijan Presidential Elections 2003: A Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, October 13, 2003 [online], (retrieved December 1, 2003). The section of the present report summarizes the findings of that briefing paper.

19 The Venice Commission provides assistance to states in adopting constitutions that conform to Europe’s standards.

20 Rasul Guliev was excluded on the incorrect basis that he was a U.S. “green card” holder, when in reality Guliev has refugee, not residence, status in the U.S. Eldar Namazov was excluded on the technical ground that he had not authenticated his identity documents, even though the CEC had allowed a pro-government candidate to revise his application for similarly minor errors on a separate occasion.

21 The other pro-government candidates registered and their affiliations were: Abutalib Samedov (Alliance for the Sake of Azerbaijan); Khafiz Hajiyev (Modern Musavat); Gudrat Gasanguliyev (Popular Front of Azerbaijan-Uniters Faction); and Yunus Aliev (National Unity). The other opposition candidates registered and their affiliations were: Lala Shovket (National Unity); Sabir Rustamkhanli (Civil Solidarity), and Araz Alizade (Social Democratic Party).

22 The statement of the CEC as reported by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Azerbaijan Report, September 26, 2003.

23 In a pre-election poll of the Center for Political and Economic Research, 36.3% of the individuals surveyed stated they would vote for Isa Gambar in the presidential elections of 2003. According to the poll, Isa Gambar was the most popular presidential candidate. “Opposition Gains Confidence as Azerbaijan Presidential Election Approaches,” Eurasianet, October 6, 2003 [online], (retrieved October 10, 2003).

24 Opposition supporters instead converged on Azadliq Square, the venue they had originally requested for their rally, and in a violent confrontation stormed the stage of the “Teacher’s Day” event and held their rally there. The next morning, police went to the Musavat office and arrested and severely beat Ilqar Gafarov, a Musavat activist, who happened to be present in the office at the time. Gafarov was released the next day, but had extensive injuries from the beatings. Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Abdullah Rafizadeh, October 8, 2003.

25 Administrative detention is customarily understood to mean detention ordered by a non-judicial body. Here it refers to detention ordered by a court, for violations of the Azerbaijani Code of Administrative Offenses, which are minor offenses. For the sake of clarity, this report will use the term administrative detention for such cases. Most of the administrative detention hearings documented by Human Rights Watch lasted only a few minutes, and ignored major fair trial guarantees such as the right to a lawyer and the right to present a defense to the charges.

26 Human Rights Watch interview with Fuad Hassanov, Baku, October 2, 2003.

27 Human Rights Watch interview with Latifa Allahverdiyeva, Baku, October 4, 2003. "Bey" is an honorific ending for a respected person's given name. Rasul-bey is the honorific name for Rasul Guliev.

28 Human Rights Watch interviews with Ramitin Makhsudova and Famil Hassanov, Baku, October 4, 2003.

29 Human Rights Watch interview with Panah Husseinov, Baku, October 6, 2003.

30 Human Rights Watch interview with Anar Natikoglu, Baku, October 2, 2003.

31 Human Rights Watch interview with Etibar Mamedov and Ali Kerimli, Goitshai, October 8, 2003. The two leaders were saved from injury by their bodyguards, but seventeen opposition members were arrested and released only the next day.

32 Human Rights Watch interview with Mubaris F., Baku, October 6, 2003. Mubaris F. is a pseudonym.

33 The Law on NGOs and Public Foundations, Article 2.4.

34 Earlier in 2003, several Baku-based Azerbaijani human rights defenders endured mob attacks, physical harassment and intimidation that appeared to have been instigated by the authorities, following the participation by one of the human rights defenders in a conference on Nagorno-Karabakh. See Human Rights Watch letter to President Aliev regarding harassment of human rights defenders, April 30, 2003 [online], (retrieved December 3, 2003).

35 Human Rights Watch interview with Novella Jafaroglu, Baku, October 1, 2003; Human Rights Watch interview with Saadat Benaniarly, Baku, October 1, 2003.

36 Human Rights Watch interview with Saadat Benaniarly, Baku, October 1, 2003.

37 Ibid.

38 Human Rights Watch email correspondence, January 7, 2004

39 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Galuran Mehtiva, October 1, 2003. International aid workers have also been summarily expelled from Nakhchivan. In June 2003, Nakhchivan authorities expelled a Swis development worker and his Azerbaijani counterpart who had come to investigate the tourism potential of the region, after the two were met at the airport by Melahat Nassibova, the head of the women’s resource center. Human Rights Watch interview with Shahla Ishmailova, Baku, October 1, 2003.

40 OSCE ODIHR, Republic of Azerbaijan Parliamentary Elections, 5 November 2000 and 7 January 2001, Final Report.

41 OSCE ODIHR, Republic of Azerbaijan Presidential Elections 15 October 2003, Final Report, pp. 1-2.

42 At the Baku polling station monitored by Human Rights Watch, 200 of 700 votes had been cast by voters not on the voter list.

43 Ibid., p. 18.

44 Ibid., p. 23.

45 Ibid., p. 25.

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January 2004