Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Bloodshed on the Streets of Baku

Three reporters provide eyewitness accounts of how election day in Baku turned into tragedy
By Rufat Abbasov

In the last 12 years since Azerbaijan became independent we have seen many rallies and even several putsches in Baku. But what happened on October 15-16 shocked even seasoned observers.


The trouble started after the polls had closed on October 15 and both police and anti-government protestors converged on the headquarters of the main opposition party Musavat.


Three journalists - one of them IWPR's Azerbaijan coordinator - have provided eyewitness accounts of what they saw.


Idrik Abbasov (of the newspaper Impuls):


By 10 o'clock there were around 2,000 people in front of the Musavat offices. Shortly afterwards, police started pouring onto the scene. At around 10.55PM they carried out the first assault. The demonstrators dispersed, but came back an hour and a half later. By that time the party leadership had erected a dais on the second floor from which Musavat leader Isa Gambar spoke, declaring that he had collected more than 60 per cent of the vote.


Several times the police called on the demonstrators to disperse and warned them they would use force. The head of the OSCE observer mission Peter Eicher also asked them to disperse. In response, Gambar called on people to keep calm and to "celebrate their victory in a civilised way."


After this, OSCE observers went and stood between the police and the demonstrators. Eicher tried to negotiate with a police colonel named Guliev. The police gave the protestors an hour to leave, and again warned them that they would break up the rally.


Then a Musavat party official emerged and told the crowd that CNN had declared Isa Gambar had won the elections. Although it later transpired that CNN had only reported on an exit poll conducted by the sociological centre ADAM, this news was greeted with a surge of joy by the crowd. Arif Hajiev, head of Musavat's electoral campaign, then invited everyone to gather the next day at 2PM in front of the Carpet Museum on the Baku seafront, which is right next door to the Central Electoral Commission and not far from the city's biggest public space, Freedom Square.


When the ultimatum expired at 1.35AM the police stormed the Musavat building. The operation lasted no more than three minutes. Dozens of people, including journalists and OSCE official Eicher, were hurt.


Shahin Rzayev (IWPR Azerbaijan coordinator):


The next day everyone awaited the appointed hour with dread. Around 13.30 I went with Huquq Salmanov, head of the journalist protection committee Rukh, to the spot where the rally was about to begin. On the way we met journalists we knew, and our group grew in numbers.


Around the museum stood policemen in flak jackets and carrying riot shields. There was no practically no one else there, but we could see a large group of opposition supporters standing to one side on the seafront boulevard, and around 50 policemen with them.


I was turned back by the police for not having my journalist accreditation with me. When I came back to the scene just a few minutes later, document in hand, everything had changed.


The police had broken up the crowd, and both police and demonstrators were running in my direction. Most of them ran straight past but one sturdy policeman told me to leave the scene. When I said I was a journalist, he struck me on the leg with his truncheon and shouted "you'll get the next one on the head." Thanking him for his "humane" approach, I too ran off.


"Allah, save us and our children!" wailed a weeping old woman in a Muslim headscarf, limping away from the museum. Behind us were around 40 special-forces policemen in flak jackets and helmets. They banged their truncheons against their shields in rhythm for psychological effect. The old woman could go no further, and sat down in the road. Two soldiers picked her up carefully, put her on the pavement and ran to catch up with their comrades.


As shops and cafes saw what was happening, they began closing.


Rufat Abbasov (Olaylar newspaper):


Around 2PM around a thousand Musavat supporters, shouting "Isa" [Gambar] began to break through onto the square in front of the museum.


It turned out that most of the protestors were armed with various metal instruments and stones. Attacking the policemen and pushing them into the fountains on the embankment promenade, they moved towards the Carpet Museum and then set off for the Musavat headquarters. Along the way, they began to smash both police cars and ordinary vehicles.


For ten minutes, they shouted the slogan "Musavatyn bashgany, olub jumhurbashgani!" which means "The head of Musavat has become head of state!" Then the crowd, which was now one-and-a-half thousand strong, began to move on Freedom Square and Government House. They threw stones at Government House, which is headquarters of several ministries.


The euphoria of many protestors had turned into savage anger, and they started beating up those policemen who did not run away. Before my eyes, a group of Musavat supporters beat a thin soldier aged about 18 and who had got randomly caught up in the march. They beat him on the head, legs and stomach and dragged him along the ground. The soldier was already unconscious, and his life was saved only thanks to the intervention of journalists and a Musavat official who told them not to spoil the party's image and give in to provocation.


Perhaps because of their surprise tactics, by 3PM the Musavat activists had stormed Freedom Square, their former favourite rallying place, where they had been trying in vain to meet since 1993.


Exulting in this victory, the crowd - now numbering some 3,000 people - began demanding the resignation of "prime minister" Ilham Aliev, while opposition leaders urged protestors not to react to any provocations by the police.


After about 15 minutes of this jubilation, the police and interior ministry troops surrounded the square and began to advance on the crowd. Opposition supporters responded by throwing stones. One protestor took over an interior ministry truck and drove it at the police, running over several of them.


After this the police used tear gas to break up the crowd and the protestors ran off into the surrounding streets. The security forces, many of whom were wearing black masks and had dogs, began savagely to beat not only the opposition demonstrators, but also journalists and observers. Interfax correspondent Fuad Husseinaliev was hospitalised after a severe blow to the head.


At least one person was killed and a five-year-old child was severely hurt in the violence.


In a number of streets, the police pressed on after the protestors and beat any that they found. The ground was littered with bricks and scraps of clothing, and there were occasional splashes of blood. Shop windows were smashed. The police brought in a water cannon.


"This proves once again that Ilham cannot be president, like his father was," said Hussein, a former member of the governing party Yeni Azerbaijan who had recently joined the opposition and was hurt by the police.


"You just can't treat your people like that," said Hussein, wiping away tears and blood from his face. "How can they live like that? Let us live too, we're people as well."


Shahin Rzayev:


After the rally on Freedom Square was broken up, the crowd spread out into streets in the centre. Around 5PM I saw a group of young people aged between 17 and 25 moving along Rasul Rza Street towards the centre.


They had a flag and plenty of weapons for hand-to-hand fighting. Most of them were armed with an instrument that looked like a mattock, only smaller. I had never seen a weapon like that before, so I was surprised that the opposition protestors had been able to organise so many of them so quickly. Others were carrying concrete blocks.


They were led by a young man of around 25. He ordered them not to respond to any provocations or touch civilians, cars of shop windows.


The same scene was occurring in the parallel streets. These men soon came out onto Fountain Square, the favourite promenading spot for Baku residents. They began to smash advertisement hoardings carrying portraits of Heidar and Ilham Aliev. Shop owners whose windows were adorned with dozens of portraits of father and son began quickly to rip the posters down and trample on them. People fled in panic.


The trouble died down around 10PM. An hour later, Baku residents were out for their usual evening walk on Fountain Square. Around them were strewn broken glass and torn posters of the new and previous president. The next morning, all the advertising stands had been put up again - but now they just showed a map of central Baku.


Idrik Abbasov is a correspondent with the Impuls newspaper. Rufat Abbasov is a correspondent with Olaylar newspaper. Shahin Rzayev is IWPR's Azerbaijan coordinator.