The wave of unrest and anti-government agitation in the Middle East may now have spread to the Muslim republics of the former Soviet Russia.
According to media reports, about 30 people have been jailed in Azerbaijan after police cracked down on an illegal anti-government rally that took place over the weekend in the capitol city of Baku. Another 160 activists have been arrested.
Demonstrators reportedly chanted “Resign” and “No to the dictatorship!” before riot police intervened.
According to Human Rights Watch, the detained activists were “quickly convicted in summary trials on charges of disobeying police orders and sentenced to administrative or misdemeanor detention ranging from five to 13 days, which would keep them locked up beyond the protest date.”
President Ilham Aliyev, who is clearly aware that regimes have toppled one by one in the Middle East and North Africa, has enforced a zero-tolerance policy towards anti-government sentiments in the his country.
Aliyev became president in 2003, succeeding his father, Heydar Aliyev, who seized power in 1993.
Rachel Denber, acting director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch, commented: “It is clear that the authorities are determined to crush any attempts by opposition activists to gather peacefully.”
Witnesses reported that during the march on Saturday, riot police kicked and beat protesters, dispersing them from Baku’s popular Fountain Square. Security forces also reportedly used rubber bullets, tear gas and stun guns against the demonstrators.
“The number of detained people exceeded the capacity of the relevant police stations,” said activist Anar Mammadli, according to Eurasianet. “People didn’t sit for several hours. They were kept in a very narrow place with no fresh air.”
According to Eurasianet, the Baku protest was apparently organized by the Public Chamber, coalition of non-partisan politicians, opposition political party representatives and non-governmental organization (NGO) activists.
Among the people taken into custody was Hasan Kerimov Deputy Chairman of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (PFPA), an opposition group. Two other PFPA luminaries did not appear at the rally since they were summoned to meet with Baku police officials prior to it.
Organizers had earlier rejected a proposal by the government officials to hold the rally on the outskirts if Baku.
Amnesty International has condemned the measures taken by Baku authorities, citing that “the Azerbaijani government cannot credibly maintain that it is making progress in its democratic development whilst systematically clamping down on social movements and political gatherings that it disapproves of.”
The government itself pointed out the relatively small number of people who appeared at Saturday’s rally (under 1,000 by some accounts).
Mubariz Gurbanli, deputy executive secretary of the governing Yeni Azerbaijan Party, told the pro-government Trend news agency that the low number of rally participants suggested that “radical opposition has neither supporters, nor social support.”
The Public Chamber has tentatively scheduled another rally for April 16.
Azerbaijan, situated on the western coast of the Caspian Sea and above Iran, is a vital oil supplier to Europe and a transit route for US soldiers going to Afghanistan.