Associated Press Worldstream
September 25, 2005 Sunday
Police arrest dozens of Azerbaijani opposition parties amid attempted
AIDA SULTANOVA; Associated Press Writer
Opposition activists clashed with riot police Sunday as Azerbaijan’s
largest opposition alliance defied authorities’ refusal to allow a
protest rally – fueling fears of growing unrest in the Caspian Sea
nation just weeks before parliamentary elections.
Opposition leaders said dozens were beaten and arrested in the
confrontations, which were abruptly suspended after authorities
called for surprise negotiations to try and calm spiraling tensions
in the oil-rich former Soviet republic that borders Iran.
“Our goal is free, democratic elections,” party leader Ibraghim
Veliyev said, adding that he was hit by police truncheons during
Sunday’s rally. “In spite of everything, we will continue our
struggle. Authorities must understand that the country needs
Rising tensions before the Nov. 6 vote have led some observers to
predict that Azerbaijan could see a mass uprising similar to those
that brought opposition leaders to power in Georgia, Ukraine and
Kyrgyzstan. The mostly Muslim nation of 8.3 million is the starting
point for a pipeline that will ship oil and gas from Azerbaijan’s
huge offshore reserves to a Turkish Mediterranean port.
Though the opposition has held nearly weekly demonstrations, Sunday’s
was the first mass protest to be held without official permission
since the October 2003 presidential election, which the opposition
said was rigged and which sparked rioting.
President Ilham Aliev, who succeeded his late, strongman father in
that election, has pledged repeatedly that the November elections
would will be free. Opposition leaders said, however, they strongly
doubted the vote would be fair.
Hundreds of activists on one Baku street chanted “Resign!” and “Free
Elections!” and carried red carnations as they confronted a row of
riot police. As they tried to break through the cordon, officers
using truncheons beat them back and forced them to flee.
Isak Avazogli, a spokesman for the People’s Front of Azerbaijan, one
of three parties making up the Azadlig opposition alliance, said more
than 100 people were detained. City police officials said 15 officers
were injured in the clashes and 42 activists were detained.
“This is an unsanctioned action, and police were performing their
duties,” deputy city police chief Yasar Aliyev said.
Appealing for calm, opposition leaders held 30 minutes of closed door
negotiations with authorities – an unprecedented decision by a
government that has kept the opposition at arm’s length.
“It’s clear that authorities, on the eve of parliamentary elections,
fear they will find themselves in an unpleasant situation before the
world community,” political analyst Rasim Musabekov said. “There is
not the slightest doubt that the elections will be falsified; the
question is will it be completely falsified.”
One opposition party spokesman said Laura Scheibe, a political
officer with the U.S. Embassy in Baku, had participated in the talks.
Scheibe could not be located for comment, and no one answered phones
at the embassy Sunday.
Party leader Ali Kerimli said the law stipulates that the opposition
must only notify authorities before staging rallies. Government
officials disagreed, but said they would hold further discussions
Monday about the legality of future rallies, he said.
“We are not the same opposition as before; we are more united in our
strength,” he said.
More than 2,000 candidates are running for 125 seats in parliament.
Even before the formal beginning of the election campaign earlier
this month, allegations that authorities were trying to discredit the
opposition had arisen.
Two activists with an opposition youth organization were arrested
last month, accused of receiving money from Armenian agents in
exchange for organizing an uprising in Azerbaijan. The two deny the
charges and say Azerbaijan’s secret service was responsible.
Authorities have also vowed to arrest former parliament speaker Rasul
Guliyev, who has lived in self-imposed exile in the United States
since 1996, should he return to Azerbaijan. Guliyev is running for
parliament, as is another opposition figure, Ayaz Mutalibov, a former
president who also lives in self-imposed exile in Moscow.