On the October 15 election eve and on October 16, two violent clashes took place between government forces and opposition supporters that provided the pretext for the government crackdown on the opposition that followed. The first clash, on the night of October 15, involved an unprovoked attack by security forces on peaceful protesters gathered in front of the Musavat headquarters. The second clash, which began at 2:00 p.m. on October 16, involved violence from the side of the protesters, but was ultimately crushed by the security forces using brutal and excessive force.
In putting down the rallies, Azerbaijani security forces did not abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. The Basic Principles provide that “law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, shall as far as possible apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force. … Whenever the lawful use of force … is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall … exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense.” The legitimate objective should be achieved with minimal damage and injury, and preservation of human life respected.
On October 15, Musavat supporters began gathering in the street in front of the Musavat headquarters. Emotions ran high as the level of fraud committed during the elections became apparent, and at some point a reporter working for the pro-government Lider TV channel was attacked by unknown assailants. The number of security forces deployed around the Musavat headquarters increased throughout the evening, until the headquarters were completely surrounded by police and army units, as well as masked men belonging to the feared Organized Crime Unit (OCU) of the Ministry of Interior. Shortly after midnight, the head of the OSCE observer mission, Peter Eicher, came to meet with Musavat leader Isa Gambar to urge him to ask his supporters to remain peaceful. Tensions grew through the night, as Musavat leaders emerged to declare that Isa Gambar was the real victor in the elections.
At 1:00 a.m., the security forces moved in on the protesters. OSCE monitors attempted to form a cordon between the Musavat supporters and the security forces to avoid violence, but the masked, black-clad members of the OCU broke through the cordon and beat the Musavat supporters with rubber truncheons and their fists, injuring dozens in an unprovoked attack. When Human Rights Watch observers reached the headquarters at about 2:00 a.m., three dozen wounded Musavat supporters, some of them with serious injuries, were still trapped inside the surrounded headquarters. Three teenage boys who had just attempted to leave the headquarters had been attacked by pro-government vigilantes operating in plain view of the security forces. Later in the night, at about 4:00 a.m., security forces again attacked the Musavat headquarters, beating more supporters. Most of the opposition supporters trapped in the building were finally able to leave as morning approached, but security forces continued to surround the headquarters and block access to the building the next day.
Azadliq Square in Baku is an important symbol to many Azeris as the place were millions gathered in the millions in the late 1980s to demand their independence from the Soviet Union and where opposition rallies gathered soon after independence. However, since Heidar Aliev came to power, the opposition has consistently been banned from holding rallies at Azadliq Square. Only pro-government events (including Ilham Aliev’s inauguration event) are regularly held in the square.
Prior to the elections opposition leaders warned Human Rights Watch that “if the vote is falsified, we will consider this a coup d’etat and we will struggle against it.” The day after the vote, on October 16, thousands of opposition protesters took to the street at about 2:00 p.m. The demonstration quickly grew violent, at least in part because once the protesters began to congregate, police and military forces immediately surrounded them. The protesters briefly beat back the security forces and marched from the Musavat headquarters to Azadliq Square. During their march, protesters beat dozens police officers and soldiers, some of whom were hospitalized. The protesters also destroyed a number of police and military vehicles, and damaged government buildings along the way. At Azadliq Square, the protesters were joined by some leading opposition figures, who briefly addressed the crowds.
Human Rights Watch opposes the use of violence by members of the opposition, and had met repeatedly with opposition leaders in the days prior to October 16 to urge peaceful means in all protests. We believe the violence (which occurred on October 16th) could have been avoided, had the Azerbaijani authorities allowed the opposition to organize peaceful protests as the law demands. But as documented in this report, such political space has not existed in Azerbaijan for nearly a decade, and the government consistently failed to allow peaceful political protests in the lead-up to the elections.
Almost immediately after opposition supporters arrived at Azadliq Square, several thousand riot police and military troops, supported by masked and black-clad members of the OCU, surrounded the entire square. The security forces stormed the opposition protest, using tear gas, rubber bullets, police dogs, and truncheons. Opposition supporters who had commandeered a military truck rammed the vehicle into the advancing security forces, but were quickly overwhelmed. For the next thirty minutes, a Human Rights Watch researcher witnessed as the security forces chased down protesters, surrounded them, and viciously beat them unconscious. At one end of the square, the security forces gathered a pile of semi-conscious bodies, beating those who tried to move. Human Rights Watch observed how a number of pro-government supporters in civilian clothes participated in the beatings with the security forces.
The security forces beat to death at least one person, fifty-two-year-old Hamidaga Zakhidov, whose corpse was viewed by Human Rights Watch. His bloodied body was covered in bruises and his skull had been smashed in. According to his brother, Zakhidov had come to Azadliq Square from Saatli, where he was an election observer, to “protect his rights.” Another of his brothers was also severely injured by the security forces, but a clinic refused to treat him.
At least 300 persons sustained serious injuries during the clashes, according to hospital officials and other sources. Many wounded were unable to walk and had to be carried away from the square. Among the wounded were dozens of local journalists, many of whom required hospitalization. The journalists were beaten by the security forces even after they showed identification. Several dozen army and police personnel were also wounded in the clashes.
Following the clashes at Azadliq Square, heavy concentrations of army troops and riot police continued to aggressively patrol the streets of Baku, beating anyone they suspected of supporting the opposition. Some of the victims later identified by Human Rights Watch were entirely unconnected to the opposition. For example, Asif Aliskerov, aged twenty-eight, was shopping for shoes in the center of Baku when he was beaten unconscious by a group of fifty police and army officers.
“Saidali Muradov” (not his real name), a twenty-one-year-old ADP activist who served as an election observer, told Human Rights Watch about his experience at Azadliq Square and during his subsequent arrest. He explained that he had participated in the protest, but not the violence, and had been beaten there by civilians and soldiers. He was part of a group of protesters that, when chased by security forces, fled towards the Caspian Sea (on the eastern border of Azadliq Square); some of his friends jumped into the water to escape the violence. He was taken back to the square by pro-government civilians, and made to lie in a large pile of protesters, who were beaten whenever they made the slightest movement.
Muradov was among a group of eighty-three protesters who were taken to Narimanov police station, and from there to Binegedi temporary detention facility, where they were kept for three days without food or water. One of Muradov’s cellmates begged for water, and was taken out of the cell and brutally beaten. On the fourth day of detention, the detainees were ordered to write statements saying they had attacked the police, and those who refused were beaten. Police officials would regularly enter the cells to announce that detainees who denounced the opposition would be released immediately. Muradov offered to criticize the violence, but was told he would have to criticize opposition leaders Isa Gambar, Rauf Arifoglu, and Sardar Jalaloglu by name, which he refused to do. Muradov said that after delegates of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) visited the detention facility on the fourth day, conditions began to improve. Muradov and his fellow detainees were all sentenced to fifteen days of detention, but on the ninth day—after intense pressure from the international community—police officials ordered the detainees to write “urgent appeals” to the court of appeals to have their sentences shortened, and released most of the detainees soon thereafter.
Another ADP supporter, who requested anonymity, was beaten both on October 15 and October 16, and then again in detention. At the Azadliq protest, he said, “I was among the group made to lie down on a pile [of people], they just threw us on a pile and kept kicking, and beating, and insulting us.” He was first taken to the Narimanov police station, but then transferred that same night to Azizbekov police station. The next day, five policemen came into their cell of twelve and beat the detainees with truncheons for about ten minutes. Only on October 20 was he taken to court, where he was sentenced to fifteen days administrative detention. On October 23, he was ordered to appeal his sentence to the court of appeals, and released three hours later.
Ingilap Mamedov, a Musavat member from Khajmaz, was in Baku on October 16 but did not participate in the Azadliq Square protests. At about 6:00 p.m., long after the protest in Azadliq Square had ended, he was attacked by a group of civilian-dressed “sportsmen” who beat him nearly unconscious in the street. After the beating, the men pulled Mamedov by his necktie into a police bus which took him and other detainees to Yasamal police station. Upon arrival at the police station, the detainees were forced to walk through a cordon of policemen who beat them with truncheons. Then, the Yasamal police chief came and began cursing them and Isa Gambar. Mamedov, who suffers from heart problems, explained to the police chief that he was a doctor and was feeling faint, and the police chief responded, “A doctor? So you joined Musavat to be our Minister of Health?” and punched Mamedov several times in the face. The police chief then moved on to the next man and beat him also, and spat in his face. Mamedov was taken to court at midnight and explained his health condition to the judge, who cursed at him and sentenced him to fifteen days detention. He spent a total of seven days in detention, part of it at the Binegedi administrative detention facility, where an official threatened to rape him with a bottle if he did not denounce Musavat.
46 Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, Eighth U.N. Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, Havana, 27 August to 7 September 1990, U.N. Doc. A/CONF.144/28/Rev.1 at 112 (1990).
47 Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms, principles 4 and 5.
48 Ibid., principle 5.
49 The members of the OCU dress in distinctive all-black uniforms, and often wear black balaclavas masking their faces. Their distinctive dress, clearly designed to intimidate, made it easy to spot them at the October 15 and 16 events.
50 Human Rights Watch interview, Baku, October 6, 2003.
51 Human Rights Watch interview, Baku, October 15, 2003.
52 See “Azerbaijan: Presidential Elections—Many journalists beaten or detained,” Reporters Sans Frontieres press release, October 16, 2003 [online] http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=8274 (retrieved December 23, 2003). It lists the names of twenty-five injured journalists.
53 Human Rights Watch interview with Asif Aliskerov, Baku, October 15, 2003.
54 Human Rights Watch interview with “Saidali Muradov” (not his real name), Baku, November 15, 2003.
56 He explained that he was in front of Musavat headquarters at 1:00 a.m. on the night from October 15 to 16, talking to OSCE observers and listening to singer Flora Karimov telling the crowd not to be violent and the police “not to attack their brothers.” Suddenly, the police cordon opened and “about fifty sportsmen dressed in black with sticks came out”—OCU agents in their distinctive uniforms—and began beating the protesters: “They attacked us with truncheons and sticks, I almost lost consciousness. I and some others fell down and were under their feet. I was badly hurt.” Human Rights Watch interview, Baku, November 16, 2003. The term “sportman” is used in the Caucasus to refer to muscular sports-club members who are often involved in protection or criminal activity.
57 Human Rights Watch interview, Baku, November 16, 2003.
58 Human Rights Watch interview with Ingilap Mamedov, Khadjmaz, November 23, 2003.