NEW YORK — Human Rights Watch has condemned Azerbaijan’s latest crackdown on opposition leaders and activists that followed a July 14 unsanctioned rally in the capital, Baku.
Numerous people were detained on “spurious” charges that range from violating lockdown rules to an attempted coup, the rights group said in a statement on August 19.
“The latest wave of arrests in Azerbaijan follows the well-documented pattern of politically motivated arrests and prosecutions and threatens to decimate one of the country’s oldest opposition parties,” said Giorgi Gogia, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“The authorities should immediately end the crackdown, release those unjustly imprisoned, and investigate law enforcement’s conduct.”
Thousands of people attended the rally to support the country’s armed forces amid an escalation of tensions with neighboring Armenia.
On the evening of July 14, a small number of rally participants briefly broke into the parliament building and damaged property before being removed by police.
Authorities claimed it was an attempt masterminded by the opposition to violently overthrow the government. Dozens of activists were rounded up by police in the following days.
Local activists put the number of those detained at least 80 people, including 17 members of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (APFP), one the country’s oldest opposition groups.
None of the detained APFP members was in the group that broke into the parliament, their lawyers said. Many were not even at the rally.
The arrests followed a speech by the country’s longtime president, Ilham Aliyev, who accused the APFP of instigating the violence.
He called the opposition “traitors,” “enemies,” and the “fifth column” and vowed to “resolve” the issue.
Following minor clashes between a small group of protesters and police outside the parliament, security forces dispersed the crowd, using tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets. Officials say at least seven officers were injured and 16 vehicles damaged.
Citing defense lawyers and official documents, HRW said that 16 of the detained APFP members face criminal charges of using violence against an official, violating public order, and destruction of property. One is accused of spreading an infectious disease.
Five detainees – Asif Yusifli, Mammad Ibrahim, Fuad Gahramanli, Bakhtiyar Imanov, and Ayaz Maharramli – are members of the party’s presidium, a decision-making body.
Gahramanli and Ibrahim face an additional charge of attempting to overthrow the government, punishable by up to 20 years or life in prison.
Authorities in the oil-rich Caspian Sea nation have long been criticized for frequently seeking to silence dissent by jailing opposition activists, reporters, and civil society advocates on trumped-up charges.
On July 31, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly’s rapporteurs on Azerbaijan expressed “grave concern” about what they described as “the troubling pattern of arbitrary arrest and detention of government critics.”
In his July 15 speech, Aliyev emphasized that he would “not pay attention” to criticism from the Council of Europe and other international organizations about the crackdown.
HRW said that Azerbaijan’s international partners should not be intimidated by Aliyev’s belligerent speech and should speak up against the crackdown.
“They should urge the authorities in Azerbaijan to do the right thing: End the crackdown and release all those unjustly imprisoned,” Gogia said.