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(Washington, D.C.) -- Amnesty International today called on Azerbaijan police to immediately end the use of violence to suppress freedom of expression, following two separate peaceful protests that were broken up by police in the capital city Baku on Monday.
Local activists told Amnesty International that opposition party members were specifically targeted at rallies in Baku's Sabir Garden area and in front of the city authorities' offices. Independent video footage from the scene shows police roughing up demonstrators as they are being dragged away.
"While the glamour of Eurovision is only weeks away, the international media attention is no deterrent for Baku police, who continue to use brute force to put down peaceful protests," said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's Europe and Central Asia director. "We renew our call on the Eurovision planners to roundly condemn this unacceptable and ongoing repression of freedom of expression; authorities must take immediate steps to lift bans on public protests in central Baku and bring to justice all those responsible for the police abuse."
Around 300 protesters took part in Monday's unsanctioned gatherings, which called for the release of political prisoners. Before the protests began, police surrounded the area and attempted to stop activists near the Icheri Sheher metro station.
Abulfaz Gurbanly, one of the protest organizers and the head of the opposition Popular Front Party (PFP) Youth Committee, told Amnesty International that the protesters had gathered to "demand freedom of assembly and the release of all political prisoners."In recent months, Baku city authorities have permitted some protests, but have maintained a ban on opposition parties holding rallies in the city center, relegating such gatherings to the far outskirts of the city.
Gurbanly and 17 other activists were detained at Monday's protests before being held at two different Sabail District Police departments. Ten of them were driven west of the city to the Gobustan Reserve and released with a verbal warning, while the remaining eight were given written warnings before being set free.
Police also briefly detained another group of 10 female activists at the rallies, and drove them away from the scene before releasing them in the city's Akhundov Garden area.
Gurbanly told Amnesty International that police used beatings and violence while dispersing the peaceful protesters. He described how policemen punched him and dragged him by his hair during his arrest.
Independent videos from the protests posted to YouTube show uniformed police officers shoving, punching and kicking peaceful protesters, as well as dragging some away as they shout "freedom" (Azadliq).
"This latest crackdown on peaceful protests is a sad but accurate indicator of the Azerbaijani authorities' attitude towards freedom of expression," added Dalhuisen. "It must be remedied by ensuring those responsible are swiftly brought to justice."