More than 200 protesters were arrested Saturday during an anti-government demonstration in the capital, Baku, marking the latest in a series of government crackdowns on opposition leaders and youth activists hoping to emulate the mass protest movements sweeping the Arab world.
Azeri police arrested at least 10 more anti-government activists on Thursday and Friday in what appears to have been an effort to thwart an anti-government rally Saturday, dubbed Day of Rage on Facebook and other social networking sites.
The 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,” according to a Human Rights Watch statement released Friday.
“It is clear that the authorities are determined to crush any attempts by opposition activists to gather peacefully,” said Rachel Denber, acting director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch, in the statement.
Roughly 1,000 people convened at Fountains Square Saturday morning, shouting “Resign” and “No to the dictatorship!” before riot police broke up the crowd, pushing protesters onto awaiting buses, said Azeri blogger Anar Masimov, 22, during a phone interview. Authorities said the protesters had not received proper permission from the government to hold a public rally Saturday, according to Reuters.
Saturday's crackdown comes after a series of arrests in February and March of leading opposition figures and youth activists. Police detained about 150 people at opposition rallies in Baku in March, according to Reuters.
Before a planned anti-government protest March 11, Harvard graduate Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, 29, who has been politically active on Facebook, was arrested for charges of evading military service. Jabbar Savalan, 20, a member of the opposition party, Popular Front’s youth wing, who was also active on Facebook, was arrested Feb. 5 on charges of drug possession. Both men are still in prison.
“They are obviously in jail because of their political actions,” Masimov said. “There’s no question.” Other anti-government protesters and members of opposition groups have been charged with hooliganism, “behaving dishonorably,” and “using abusive words,” according to local news reports.
Azeri authorities meanwhile are attempting to combat anti-government sentiment in Azerbaijan by organizing pro-government rallies of their own. Last week, Ali Ahmadov, deputy chairman of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party, called on young Azeris to avoid the draw of “dirty forces,” meaning the opposition, who he said were betraying Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev during a crucial time for the country, according to Kavkazsky Uzel news service.
Azerbaijan is a primary supplier of oil to Europe and a vital transit route for U.S. troops headed to Afghanistan. Aliyev became president in 2003. His father, Heydar Aliyev, took power in 1993.
-- Haley Sweetland Edwards
Photo: Azeri police arrest a protester. Credit: Turkhan Kerimov.