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Azerbaijan Clash With Police

Many are injured when opposition parties try to stage a sit-in to protest election results.

November 27, 2005|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Thousands of protesters in Azerbaijan shouting "Freedom!" and vowing to occupy downtown Baku on Saturday were beaten back by riot police wielding truncheons and water cannons. Witnesses said hundreds of protesters were injured, along with at least 26 police officers.

The demonstration in the capital, in which opposition leaders demanding new parliamentary elections tried to stage a sit-in at Victory Square, ended abruptly when officers in helmets and carrying riot shields broke apart the speaker's stand, ripped orange flags out of protesters' hands and began beating demonstrators and opposition leaders with batons, leaving several people lying injured on the ground.

Once demonstrators fled into side streets, police sealed off the square and opened fire with water cannons to drive crowds farther from the scene, witnesses said.

"We thought there was a possibility that something like this would happen, but we could not even imagine it would be so savage. To say that the use of force was excessive would be an understatement," Murad Gassanly, an advisor to the opposition Popular Front Party, said in a telephone interview.

Baku police officials said they cleared the square only after it became obvious that opposition leaders planned to occupy it indefinitely in violation of the law.

"Rally organizers were warned in advance not to turn the rally into a mass disobedience action," the Baku police said in a statement, which was reported by the Russian news agency Interfax.

"Despite this, in the course of the action, its organizers began to call on the demonstrators to disobey the authorities, and began to take specific measures to achieve their goal. Chanting, 'We will not leave the square,' [opposition leaders] called on those present to hold an action of indefinite duration on the square," the statement said.

Last year in Ukraine's capital, demonstrators waving orange flags occupied the streets to protest fraudulent elections and eventually forced a repeat of the vote, bringing the opposition to power.

Saturday's rally in Baku, which opposition leaders said drew 10,000 demonstrators, was the latest in a series of protests since the Nov. 6 parliamentary elections, which gave a majority of seats in the 125-member legislature to the ruling New Azerbaijan party, leaving opposition parties with 10 seats.

Facing widespread criticism from international observers and the U.S. State Department over the legitimacy of the voting, Azerbaijan authorities Wednesday released official results that showed the ruling party had won a total of 58 seats, not the 63-seat majority it had initially claimed. With the opposition still limited to 10 seats, the remainder went to independent candidates, many of whom are likely to be pro-government, and to little-known small parties.

On Saturday, the central election commission disbanded 108 precinct election commissions, saying that various voting laws had been violated.

The State Department credited the government for conducting a more open campaign and better monitoring than during previous elections, but said there were credible reports of "major irregularities and fraud that may have disenfranchised voters."

The U.S. Embassy was critical of the "police violence" during Saturday's rally and called for the government to "punish those responsible."

"We deplore the unjustified and unprovoked use of force against citizens peacefully exercising their right to freedom of assembly," the embassy said in a statement.

Though opposition rallies have toppled governments in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan as well as Ukraine in recent years, the opposition in Azerbaijan has neither the overwhelming public support nor defections from the ruling regime seen in those other former Soviet republics.

President Ilham Aliyev has been criticized for allowing his cronies to maintain an economic grip that has blocked reform and prevented the benefits of the Caspian Sea oil boom from reaching deep into this nation of 7.9 million people, which is wedged between Russia and Iran. But he remains reasonably popular, and analysts have tended to downplay the chances of an Orange Revolution succeeding.

Still, opposition leaders ended the rally Saturday by asking those who wanted to remain in the square to sit down. About 60% to 70% of the crowd stayed, said Gassanly, the opposition advisor.

"The people have decided to stay," one of the Freedom bloc opposition leaders, Ali Kerimli, announced from the platform.

"Suddenly, even before the official time [allowed for the demonstration] ran out, the police began to charge into the square. They attacked the [speaker's platform] and various sections of the crowd," Gassanly said. "I saw Ali Kerimli himself at the square as he was being dragged out. He got hit a few times. It was just an all-out attack."

Several plainclothes officers, including at least one who was wearing brass knuckles, also used force against the demonstrators, Gassanly said.

Police said only about 4,500 protesters were at the rally, and that "several" were injured, but gave no precise figures.

At a news conference after the crackdown, Kerimli said another rally was scheduled for Dec. 3.

"After today's events, the Azerbaijani people will make a new decision, and the present-day government will have to go," he said. "Up to now, we have been a minority. But this means that hundreds of thousands of citizens will take to the streets."

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