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Government continues crackdown to prevent protests

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - Baku, March 12, 2011 - Azerbaijani authorities detained dozens of people on their way to protests in Baku on March 11, 2011, arrested social media activists in an effort to prevent public rallies, and have suspended the work of a human rights organization, Human Rights Watch said today. The actions come in the wake of the mass protests in the Middle East and follow calls by Azerbaijani social media and opposition activists for rallies to protest government policies and corruption.

"Azerbaijani authorities should immediately release all the activists who were detained in response to the planned protests in Baku," said Rachel Denber, director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch. "Rounding people up this way is wrong and counterproductive."

The police rounded up at least 32 people in various parts of downtown Baku who had intended to participate in the rally. Most were held for a few hours and released after police took statements from them, but courts sentenced at least nine people to administrative detention, with sentences ranging from five days to eight days.

Over the past five weeks, Azerbaijani authorities have arrested at least five social media and political opposition activists on fabricated charges of drug possession, hooliganism, and draft evasion. Some of them had used Facebook and other social media to call for a youth protest on March 11, and others had used social media to call for a mass demonstration on March 12 by Azerbaijan's political opposition parties.

On March 10, the Justice Ministry suspended the Azerbaijan Human Rights House (AHRH), a nongovernmental organization that assisted local groups with international human rights advocacy on Azerbaijan and served as a resource center and site for other conferences and training sessions. The group is a member of the International Human Rights House Network and was registered in Azerbaijan in May 2007.

March 11 Detentions

Some of the 32 people rounded up on March 11 were arrested at public parks near the Baku railway station; others near the university on Nariman Avenue; and at least four as they sat in a downtown café. They were taken to various police stations in Baku's suburbs.

Human Rights Watch visited Baku's Narimanov district police station No. 18 and Khatai district station No. 37, where about 15 people in all were being held. While Human Rights Watch was at the Narimanov station, police refused to let a lawyer see his client, even though the lawyer had all the necessary credentials.

Those who were released after a few hours were warned not to participate in "unsanctioned" demonstrations. The nine who were sentenced on misdemeanor charges to administrative detention were convicted of disobeying police orders in Nasimi and Yasamal district courts.

Arrests of Activists

The social media activists arrested recently are being held on a range of fabricated criminal and administrative charges. In all cases the detainees were denied access to lawyers of their own choosing until after they had been remanded or sentenced. At least two were not allowed to inform their families of their whereabouts from the outset and the authorities would not confirm their detention or whereabouts to family members for several days. Refusing to reveal the whereabouts of a person who has been deprived of liberty deprives the person of the protection of the law and constitutes an enforced disappearance, a serious human rights violation.

"The charges against these activists are completely without foundation," Denber said. "They are a thin pretext to silence government critics."

In at least three cases, the authorities are holding the activists on administrative charges just long enough to prevent them from participating in the planned protests.

On March 8, police detained Rashadat Akhundov, a 27-year-old social media activist who was one of the first to call for the March 11 protest. Elchin Namazov, Akhundov's lawyer, told Human Rights Watch that police in civilian clothes approached him as he was running errands in Baku and demanded his documents. When Akhundov replied that he did not have them but could ask his father to get them, the policemen grabbed him, twisted his arms, stuffed him into a car and drove away. His mother witnessed the incident and tried to intervene, but was shooed away.

Akhundov was taken to Baku police station No. 37, where two police officers whom he had not seen before wrote a complaint against him, saying that he had disobeyed police orders. That day the Khatai District Court convicted him of disobeying police orders and sentenced him to five days of administrative detention. At his trial Akhundov refused the services of a state-appointed lawyer, but the court refused to wait for his lawyer to arrive.

Although administrative offense cases are open to the public, police refused to allow Akhundov's family or media to attend the hearing.

His lawyer appealed the decision on March 10.

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