The disappearance of one of the organizers of a peaceful protest against the deaths of several young conscripts allegedly as a result of hazing – a violent initiation ceremony - by the Azerbaijani military is the latest in a string of actions by the authorities to crackdown on dissent, Amnesty International said today.
Ilkin Rustamzade was detained on 9 March and has not been seen since. Three of the other organizers were arrested before the demonstration in a sting operation on 8 March. Police claim to have found drugs and incendiary devices in the homes of Mahammad Azizov, Bakhtiyar Guliyev and Shahin Novruzlu.
All three were forced to appear on state television reading pre-prepared confessions, prompting fears that they have been tortured. They face long prison sentences if convicted.
The peaceful demonstration, which took place on Saturday in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, was broken up by police with rubber bullets and water cannon.
“The violent dispersal of a peaceful protest in Azerbaijan is the latest in a string of attempts by authorities to silence dissidents ahead of Presidential elections in October,” said David Diaz-Jogeix, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia.
Local human rights groups say around a thousand people participated in the protest and 90 were arrested, roughed up and loaded onto police buses, with dozens still in custody on Monday morning.
Several demonstrators were injured after being beaten with police batons, some during their arrest and others while in custody. One had his jaw dislocated after being hit in the face with a police helmet.
“It is outrageous that Azerbaijan’s international business partners, including the European Union and the United States, continue to look the other way as those who speak up for their rights are routinely abused,” said David Diaz-Jogeix.
“It is time for the international community to reconsider how they interact with a government that shows such complete contempt for its international obligations.”
According to local organizations, there were at least 70 non-combat deaths in the Azerbaijani military last year. Military service is compulsory in the country, which provides no form of civilian alternative.
Amnesty International believes the charges against the protest organizers have been fabricated in retaliation for their role in organising the demonstration and for their membership of the NIDA youth movement, which is fiercely critical of the government and expressly dedicated to non-violence.
The Azerbaijani government has routinely used drugs and weapons charges to silence critical voices in the country.
Two of the organisers - Mahammad Azizov and Bakhtiyar Guliyev - had also founded a Facebook page in mock tribute to late President Heydar Aliyev, father of current President Ilham Aliyev, which frequently posted satirical messages and cartoons about him and his family.
Those who dare to criticise the President’s family often find themselves targeted by the government – musician Jamal Ali was tortured last year after cursing the President’s mother and reporter Khadija Ismayilova was blackmailed with a sex tape after she investigated the Aliyev family’s ownership of Eurovision construction projects.
“The authorities must immediately inform Ilkin Rustamzade’s family of his whereabouts and release all four protest organisers, as well as all those detained for taking part in a peaceful demonstration” said Diaz-Jogeix.