BAKU — Thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets of the Azerbaijani capital to call for the release of a jailed anticorruption blogger and other people they consider political prisoners.
The protesters taking part in the sanctioned rally in Baku on January 19 demanded President Ilham Aliyev’s government release Mehman Huseynov and other political prisoners.
Police said some 2,800 people took part in the rally, though opposition organizers said the figure for the number of demonstrators was around 20,000. The National Council for Democratic Forces, an umbrella group of opposition parties, organized the rally.
Security forces said there were no violent incidents at the event. Police checked participants for weapons before allowing them to attend the demonstration.
Protesters held signs saying “Freedom For Political Prisoners” and “We WIll Win,” among others. A resolution was adopted at the end of the demonstration calling for all political prisoners to be freed and that activists who were detained on the eve of the protest action also be released.
Rally organizers said about 100 activists had been detained by police ahead of the demonstration, with most of them still being held. Azerbaijani officials reject the notion that there are political prisoners in the country.
Speakers at the rally also criticized what they called widespread corruption in the state government.
Ilqar Mammadov, the head of the opposition REAL Party who was recently released from prison, said “if Azerbaijan was a true republic then the…serious problems of Azerbaijan would be discussed in the [parliament].” He also pointed out that Azerbaijan’s neighbors, Georgia and Armenia, had become progressively more democratic than Azerbaijan in recent years.
Calls for Huseynov’s release have intensified inside and outside Azerbaijan since he was targeted with a new charge late last month, just weeks before his expected release from prison. He is accused of “resisting a representative of the authorities with the use of violence dangerous to [the representative’s] health and life.” Huseynov himself and several other political prisoners have started hunger strikes in protest.
Huseynov is already serving a two-year prison term on libel charges that he and his supporters considered to be politically motivated. He was originally arrested and charged with slandering a police officer. Huseynov has also alleged that he has been tortured while in prison.
Rights groups and Western governments have urged the Azerbaijani authorities to release political prisoners for years, and have accused the government of fabricating criminal cases to stifle dissent and media freedom.
Aliyev, who has ruled the oil-producing former Soviet republic of almost 10 million people with an iron fist since shortly before his long-ruling father’s death in 2003, has shrugged off the criticism.