Azerbaijanis Demanding Vote Are Beaten
BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) -- Azerbaijani protesters demanding free elections were beaten back Saturday by police, who arrested dozens as they broke up a banned rally in the oil-rich former Soviet republic on the Caspian Sea four days before the inauguration of a new pipeline.
Tension between the government and the opposition in the tightly controlled country has increased since an October 2003 election in which Ilham Aliev replaced his late father, Geidar Aliev, as president in a vote the opposition said was marred by fraud. A parliamentary vote is scheduled for November.
Officials had forbidden the opposition to protest, citing security concerns four days ahead of the visit of foreign leaders who will attend a ceremony marking the opening of Azerbaijan's portion of the U.S.-backed Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline.
Norwegian Ambassador Steinar Gil criticized Aliev for ! the "crude violence" and said it damaged the government's reputation.
The mostly Muslim country of 8.3 million, a U.S. ally in the war on terror with troops in Iraq, is the starting point of the pipeline that Washington says will reduce dependence on oil from the Middle East.
The violence broke out as groups of protesters tried to defy the ban and make their way to a central square in the capital, Baku, shouting "Freedom!" and "Free elections!"
Helmeted police with riot shields chased protesters and lashed out at them with truncheons, dispersing the rally after about two hours. Police detained dozens of people, putting them into buses and vans.
Human rights activist Saida Godzhamanly said more than 100 people were detained, including 10 women. Ali Kerimli, head of the People's Front of Azerbaijan party, said about 300 people were taken off.
The police said 45 people were detained for disorder and refusing to obey police.
A journalist fr! om an independent newspaper who was bloodied by blows - despite wearing clothing marked "press" - and a passer-by who was knocked unconscious by a truncheon blow were taken to the People's Front headquarters. The journalist was later taken away in an ambulance.
The clashes came against the backdrop of a wave of change in the former Soviet Union, where protests against long-entrenched governments over alleged election fraud have helped bring opposition forces to power in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan over the past 18 months.
Uzbekistan also faced unrest and international condemnation after a May 13 government crackdown in the city of Andijan, where witnesses said hundreds of protesters were killed by government troops. Uzbek President Islam Karimov has blamed Islamic militants for the unrest and denies his troops fired on unarmed civilians.
Opposition groups said thousands of people participated in the protest in Baku, while police said there were no more th! an 500.
"Our action succeeded," said opposition Musavat (Equality) party leader Isa Gambar. "Today was a demonstration of our will and the will of the people for democratic changes in the country."
The Norwegian ambassador said the crackdown on the protesters was worse for the government's image than the protest itself.
"There were statements about (the protest's) negative impact for the pipeline, but what happened today is even worse for the events due next week," he said.
The pipeline is being built by a consortium headed by Britain's BP and is to carry Caspian Sea oil to Western markets.
Opposition leaders organized the rally to call for free and fair elections and freedom of speech. They said Friday that 30 activists had been detained over the previous two days on misdemeanor charges and some have been sentenced to up to 15 days in prison in what they called an attempt to thwart their plans.
The U.S.-based Freedom House rights advo! cacy group urged Azerbaijan on the eve of the rally to release the detainees immediately and respect the right to freedom of assembly.
"It is time for the Azerbaijani government to demonstrate its commitment to democratic reform with genuine actions," Freedom House said.
May 21, 2:12 PM EDT, By AIDA SULTANOVA Associated Press
And I think we can all guess the American position. Taken from http://us.oneworld.net/article/view/77470/1/?PrintableVersio n=enabled
Washington Trades Human Rights for Oil in Azerbaijan
|WASHINGTON, D.C., Jan 23 (OneWorld) -- The oil-rich nation of Azerbaijan, eagerly courted by the Bush administration, is suffering its worst repression since it became an independent state--after the Soviet collapse more than a decade ago--according to a new report released today by New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW). |
The 55-page report, "Crushing Dissent: Repression Violence and Azerbaijan's Elections," details hundreds of arbitrary arrests, widespread beatings and torture, and politically motivated firings of opposition activists and supporters following October 15 presidential elections widely denounced as unfair and fraudulent by Western and other observers.
The elections confirmed Ilham Aliev as the nation's new ruler. He is the son of Heidar Aliev, a former top KGB official and Kremlin adviser, who became president two years after Azerbaijan became independent in 1991. The elder Aliev died last month while receiving medical treatment in the United States.
"Azerbaijan is experiencing its gravest human rights crisis of the past ten years," said Rachel Denber, acting director of HRW's Europe and Central Asia Division. "The government must take immediate steps to end the repression."
The report, based on hundreds of interviews with victims and witnesses in 13 towns and cities during and immediately after the elections and subsequent testimonies and press reports, found that repression has only intensified over the last several months.
It also accused the U.S. and other western governments of responding to the elections and the crackdown that followed them by sending muted and contradictory messages, capped by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's visit last month. Rumsfel personally congratulated the younger Aliev on his election victory, but otherwise refused to make any comment on the political situation.
"The international community needs to take a strong and consistent stance against the rising tide of abuse," said Denber. "In light of President Bush's recent statements on democracy in neighboring countries in the Middle East, U.S. inaction on Azerbaijan is particularly troubling."
Despite its vast oil wealth, Azerbaijan remains a poor country with an annual per capita income well below US$4,000, and about half the population living below the poverty line. The country lost part a key part of its territory, Nagorno-Karabakh, in a fierce conflict with neighboring Armenia in the early 1990s that was suspended by a cease-fire in 1994 but has yet to be fully resolved.
Corruption under the Alievs has reportedly been rampant, particularly with the investment of billions of dollars by foreign oil companies eager to exploit the country's energy resources, found primarily in and around the capital, Baku, and beneath Azerbaijan's territorial waters in the Caspian Sea.
Washington has been interested in Azerbaijan as a major future supplier of oil for the past decade. It has played a leading role in promoting the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline that will carry oil from the Caspian through Azerbaijan and Georgia to Turkey's easternmost Mediterranean port, a controversial project designed to ensure to circumvent Russia and Iran, even though using existing grids would be a much cheaper transport method.
Azerbaijan was quick to offer assistance to Washington after the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, and military ties between the two nations have grown steadily. Beginning in 2002, Bush waived a ban on security assistance to Azerbaijan that was first imposed during its war with Armenia.
Indeed, Rumsfeld's recent trip there was aimed at intensifying military cooperation and assessing Baku's willingness to host U.S. military facilities. Washington has also expressed interest in providing Azerbaijan with training and equipment, including a Coast Guard cutter, to permit its navy to patrol its waters.
But some analysts say the growing coziness with the Aliev government carries serious risks, particularly if repression and corruption are not soon curbed. The fact that it had to resort to fraud to ensure its election victory, according to this view, suggests that the government is deeply unpopular and could be destabilized.
"A failure to fully promote democracy will ensure that the profits from oil production will end up in the Swiss bank accounts of corrupt leaders and government officials," warned Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA) in a recent article in which he argued that Washington faces similar challenges throughout the Caucasus region. Some days later, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze was ousted in a popular uprising.
While the Georgian crisis was resolved in a free election swept by a pro-U.S. opposition, the October election in Azerbaijan was anything but free, according to HRW and other independent analysts.
HRW found that the government prevented many opposition candidates from campaigning effectively--often through police brutality, arbitrary arrests, and intimidation--during the election campaign. On election day it carried out a well-organized campaign of fraud to ensure victory for Ilham Aliev with some 75 percent of the official vote. The fact that the fraud was carried out in front of the largest election-monitoring team ever deployed to Azerbaijan only increased the frustration of both the opposition and the observers.
Immediately after the election, protest demonstrations were met by "brutal and excessive force" carried out by the police, as a result of which at least 300 protestors suffered serious injuries and one was killed. Azerbaijani authorities have so far refused to carry out an investigation of the police violence, let alone punish any of the security forces involved.
In the weeks following the election, the authorities used the violence as a pretext for rounding up nearly 1,000 people--among them, opposition leaders and activists, activists of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) perceived as supporting the opposition, journalists, and election officials and observers who challenged the fraud. Those detained routinely suffered beatings by police, while opposition leaders held at the Organized Crime Unit of the Interior Ministry were tortured by electric shock, severe beating, and threats that they would be raped.
As of last week, more than 100 detainees remain in custody and, if convicted of various crimes with which they have been charged, may face up to 12 years in prison. More than 100 opposition supporters and their family members have been fired from their jobs, while opposition activists throughout the country are subject to constant harassment by the policy.
"The government of Azerbaijan is attempting to crush the opposition with few attempts to hide it," charges the HRW report, which calls on the government to immediately release all of those detained for political reasons and thoroughly investigate acts of torture and other official misconduct. But it stressed that the role of the international community, particularly Western powers, could play a critical role.
Next Tuesday, the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly, is scheduled to debate Azerbaijan's compliance the Council's human rights requirements--an opportunity, according to HRW for European governments to express stronger concern. "The Assembly needs to adopt a strong resolution making clear that Azerbaijan's credentials are at risk unless the government remedies the situation," said Denber. Azerbaijan was admitted to the Council in February, 2001.
Washington also needs to convey a clearer message, according to HRW, which recognized the Aliev's election victory, even as U.S. observers sent by the administration denounced them as a "sham."
Edited by Yusuf.