By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — Dozens of opposition supporters have been arrested in the Azerbaijani capital as they tried to stage an antigovernment rally in downtown Baku.
Protesters were holding placards reading “We want freedom,” “Ilham, go away,” and chanting for President Ilham Aliyev’s “resignation” from office.
Police shut down the central Fountain Square and roads leading to the square were blocked by police buses, RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service correspondents report from Baku.
Hundreds of protesters gathered near the square before security services cleared the area.
The police, armed with batons, arrested protesters as they tried to reach Fountain Square, including women, and forced them into buses.
RFE/RL correspondents saw police officers spraying tear gas through the bus windows into the detained activists’ faces.
Police tried to restrict the movements of journalists covering the developments around the square. At least one journalist was briefly detained by security forces, our correspondents reported from the scene.
The rally was organized by the Public Chamber umbrella opposition group. The group had applied for a permit to rally in the central square, but the request was denied. They were told to rally at a location on the city’s outskirts.
City police officials told the local APA news agency on April 1 that opposition leaders and protest organizers were summoned and told to hold their rally only in the designated area.
Interior Minister Ramil Usubov called on people not to take part in what he described as the “radical opposition’s unsanctioned demonstrations.”
Several opposition activists have been arrested in recent days and access to the opposition website Azadliq was blocked.
The arrests have drawn condemnation from human rights groups.
In a statement issued on April 1, the New York-based Human Rights Watch advocacy group said the arrests of opposition activists were “the government’s latest attempt to prevent the type of protests in North Africa and the Middle East from spreading to Azerbaijan.”
Rachel Denber, acting director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division, added, “It is clear that the authorities are determined to crush any attempts by opposition activists to gather peacefully.
“The government is using the flimsiest pretexts to silence critics,” Denber said. “It is making a mockery of Azerbaijan’s justice system. These arrests should stop immediately.”
Amnesty International and the U.S. Embassy in Azerbaijani have also said expressed concerns over government crackdowns on opposition leaders and rights activists.
Which Way Will Opposition Go?
Inspired by popular uprisings in Arab countries, Azerbaijani opposition leaders said that more antigovernment rallies would be held in the future.
Ali Kerimli, the leader of Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, told RFE/RL that despite police pressure “people could express their protest.”
Musavat Party leader Isa Qambar said Baku residents joined the rally, and this “proved our predictions that the April 2 protest wasn’t going to be only an opposition protest, it appeared to be a protest by all the people.”
Officials, however, insist it is unlikely that popular revolts will take place in Azerbaijan.
Ali Hasanov, head of the presidential administration’s social and political affairs department, told local media that no more than a few hundred would join the opposition rallies.
“Once opposition activists tried to become like Georgians, Ukrainians, or Kyrgyz, but couldn’t. Now they have decided to become like Arabs,” Hasanov said. “It all shows how miserable the Azerbaijani opposition is.”
He said the opposition should try to compete in the planned 2013 presidential election instead.
The oil-rich Muslim country is a key energy supplier for Europe. President Ilham Aliyev came to power in 2003 after succeeding his father, Heydar Aliyev, who ruled the country for a decade.
Aliyev’s government is widely criticized for a lack of democratic reforms, corruption, cronyism, and clampdowns on opposition and free speech.
written by Farangis Najibullah and Arife Kazimi, with reporting from RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service