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Activists sentenced for resisting police in Azerbaijan

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - Police rounded up dozens of youth and political party activists in central Baku on October 20, 2012, roughing them up and forcing them into police cars and buses, Human Rights Watch said today. Many were fined and released, but at least 13 were sentenced to 10 days of detention on misdemeanor offenses.

"Once again, the Azerbaijani government has trampled on people's right to hold peaceful protests," said Giorgi Gogia, senior South Caucasus researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The authorities should immediately release the protesters and investigate any allegations of ill-treatment by law enforcement."

More than 200 youth activists affiliated with opposition political parties and independent civil society tried to organize the rally in central Baku on October 20. They intended to call for parliament's dismissal in light of a recent scandal in which a secretly recorded video was published on the Internet. The video appeared to show a member of parliament from the ruling party who has strong ties to the presidential administration asking for a bribe of 1 million manat (about US$1.3 million) from a candidate in exchange for securing his victory in the 2005 parliamentary vote.

Baku municipal authorities on October 17 had denied the protest organizers' request for a permit to hold the October 20 gathering in Baku's center, offering an alternative space in the city's outskirts, an area not easily accessible through public transportation.

The Azerbaijani authorities have adopted a policy to effectively ban all forms of peaceful protest from the center of Baku, and instead to force all demonstrations into designated zones on the outskirts of the city. Since early 2006, authorities have not authorized a single opposition protest in the center of Baku. On October 19, Baku police warned the organizers that an unsanctioned rally in the city center would be dispersed.

Such a blanket ban against freedom of assembly in the central areas of Baku goes against Azerbaijan's international commitments to freedom of assembly and expression, Human Rights Watch said. As the European Court of Human Rights has warned, "Sweeping measures of preventive nature to suppress freedom of assembly and expression […] do a disservice to democracy and often endanger it."

At about 2 p.m., about an hour prior to the rally's start time, police amassed near the opposition Musavat party offices, where the party's youth activists had been gathering. Several dozen activists started walking toward a nearby metro station, chanting, "Free elections!", "Resign, phony parliament!", and "Freedom!" Without prior warning, uniformed police and security officials in civilian clothes started to grab the activists, then covered their mouths, forced them into nearby police buses, and drove them away.

Meanwhile, another group of political and civic activists gathered at Fountain Square, a pedestrian shopping area in central Baku. Several witnesses told Human Rights Watch that there was a strong presence of uniformed and plain clothes police in the immediate area. At 3 p.m., a group of protesters started chanting, "Down with the government!", "Phony Milli Mejlis!", referring to the parliament, and "Resign, Ilham Aliyev!", the president.

Uniformed and plainclothes police immediately moved in on the demonstrators, forcefully restraining them, including pinning down their arms and roughing them up. Police shoved the protesters into waiting buses and drove them away. Police then locked arms to form a line and pushed the remaining protesters away from the square.

Several sources of video footage of the incident, widely available online, also show that in the midst of the dispersal, one police official used a loudspeaker to announce that the demonstration was unsanctioned, calling on the demonstrators to disperse.

"Although the demonstration was unsanctioned, the police should not have used force to disperse protesters who posed no threat," Gogia said. "Freedom of assembly is a fundamental democratic right, and the Azerbaijani authorities are obligated to tolerate peaceful protests. Loss of liberty should not be a sanction for peaceful protest and Azerbaijan authorities should immediately release the detained activists."

Many of the activists were released after being transported to the outskirts of Baku. Others were taken to police detention. One of the youth activists apprehended at Fountain Square told Human Rights Watch that she was kept at the Sabail district police station for several hours in a cell with three other female activists and that, despite numerous requests, they were not given water. She also said that male activists were kept separately, with some 25 detainees jammed into one cell.

Later that evening, about 50 of the protesters detained at Fountain Square were transferred to courts, where 13 were sentenced to administrative (misdemeanor) imprisonment terms ranging from 7 to 10 days for disobeying police orders. One of the protesters told Human Rights Watch that the trials were perfunctory and lasted barely more than 10 minutes. Several detainees refused the services of a state-provided lawyer, and they were not allowed to retain a lawyer of their choosing.

Another 28 protesters were fined up to 25 AZN (US$32) and released, others were released with a warning.

"Although the activists were tried for misdemeanor offenses, they were entitled to due process rights," Gogia said. "Anyone facing detention has a right to a real trial with real defense. A trial should never be a rubber stamp."

Azerbaijan is a party to a number of human rights treaties, including the European Convention on Human Rights, which imposes obligations on the government to respect the right of assembly and to refrain in all circumstances from engaging in prohibited ill-treatment of protesters. The government also has a duty to investigate and remedy violations.

In January 2013, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) is scheduled to review a report by the PACE Monitoring Committee on Azerbaijan's compliance with its accession commitments.

"The Azerbaijani government is trying systematically to ban peaceful protests in the capital's downtown area," Gogia said. "It is exactly this kind of systematic denial of fundamental rights that the Council of Europe should monitor very closely."

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