Police Squash Election Sit-Down Protest

A peaceful opposition protest against fraud in Azerbaijan’s parliamentary elections ended in violence November 26 after police, armed with truncheons, tear gas and water cannon, broke up an attempted sit-down action. Despite the use of force, opposition leaders are vowing to organize new demonstrations in their effort to secure a new parliamentary vote.

Fifteen minutes from the end of the two-hour demonstration, Popular Front Party Chairman Ali Kerimli, a leader of the opposition Azadlig (Freedom) bloc, told a crowd of several thousand protestors chanting for a sit-in that he would join them if they wanted to sit down. ''I will sit with you,'' Kerimli said, though stated that protestors would not hold the square all night.

The announcement was a reversal from past statements by Azadlig leaders, who had said that they would not resort to such actions as long as legal means of redressing opposition grievances remained. On November 24, however, the Central Election Commission submitted final election results to the Constitutional Court for validation. [See related EurasiaNet story]. The official tally from the November 6 elections gave the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party control of the 125-seat legislature.

In response to the sit-down attempt, police quickly surrounded demonstrators and started beating them with truncheons. After half an hour, the police deployed water cannon to drive away the crowd. Hundreds of interior ministry troops helped police disperse the demonstrators. Azerbaijani officials denied that tear gas was used to disperse the crowds.

Liberal Party Chairperson Lala Shovket had earlier called on police not to use force to break up the sit-down action, but the appeal went unheard. Authorities had previously warned the opposition through mass media outlets that law-enforcement bodies would not allow protestors to conduct a sit-in, or to pitch tents in Galaba Square. Authorities apparently viewed the attempted sit-down action as an effort to duplicate the techniques used by the Ukrainian opposition during the December 2004 Orange Revolution. In Ukraine’s case, the sit-down protest culminated in a change of government. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Police said that Baku protestors had broken the law by attempting to stage the sit-down. "During the rally today I spoke to the opposition leaders, warning against any acts of provocation, but that was ignored," Baku Deputy Police Chief Yashar Aliyev told a November 26 news briefing. Police put protest participant numbers at 4,000, and said that 500 police troops had been stationed around the square.

"As a result, and acting only within the bounds of the law, we used force to restore order on the square," Aliyev stated. Twenty-nine protesters were arrested in the crackdown, according to Aliyev, including Liberal Party Deputy Chairman Avaz Temirkhan.

"A lot of our people have been hurt" Popular Front Party Chairman Kerimli, who was also beaten by police, told EurasiaNet. "We did not break the law. We were having a peaceful protest which ended when police started to beat up unarmed people."

The number of demonstrators and police officers injured in the action remains unclear. Police officials have said that only one protestor and 20 police troops were injured. An Azadlig statement refers to “[h]undreds of women, children, old people and other participants” receiving “serious injuries” from the crackdown, and refers to unconfirmed media reports that two protestors were killed. A separate statement from the Musavat Party, an Azadlig member, claims that 46 of its members were injured.

Kerimli, who attended the demonstration with his wife and 12-year-old son, argued that the police reaction to protestors shows a lack of commitment to democratization by President Ilham Aliyev’s administration. “The severe actions of the government against its own people showed the face of the regime we are fighting… They are ready to use the army against citizens, and this regime is not different from those in Uzbekistan and Belarus,” he stated. Uzbekistan and Belarus are generally recognized as among the most authoritarian in the former Soviet Union.

Opposition members say they are now waiting for a reaction from the international community. Many want the West to demand that the Aliyev administration to fulfill earlier democratization pledges. “If the international community will give an adequate assessment to [the November 26] violence and will not forgive Ilham Aliyev, I believe that new elections in Azerbaijan will be announced,” Kerimli said.

Shortly after the demonstration breakup, the US embassy in Baku, which had sent its own observers to the scene, issued a statement deploring “the unjustified and unprovoked use of force against citizens peacefully exercising their right to freedom of assembly.” At the same time, US officials have previously said that Washington does not support the idea of fresh parliamentary elections.

The United Kingdom has also expressed concern about the November 26 events. British Ambassador Lawrence Bristow told the Turan news agency on November 26 that "we are urging all the parties to exercise maximum restraint.”

The opposition says that it intends to continue staging demonstrations not only in Baku, but also in the regions. Since the November 6 vote, up to 10 small demonstrations have been conducted in Zagatala, Saatli, Bilasuvar, Neftchala and other towns, mostly all dispersed by local authorities and police.

The next Baku demonstration has been scheduled for December 3. Opposition leaders say that they expect it will be held in conjunction with nationwide protests against election results. They also add that there are no plans for a sit-down protest. “We do not want to put people under the truncheons of the police,” Kerimli said.

Editor’s Note: Rufat Abbasov and Mina Muradova are freelance journalists based in Baku.

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Protest violence in Baku, Azerbaijan, November 26, 2005. (Sophia Mizante for EurasiaNet)