Outcry in Azerbaijan After Student Protest Broken Up

Campaigners condemn police crackdown on demonstrators who disrupted commemoration of ex-president’s birthday.

Outcry in Azerbaijan After Student Protest Broken Up

Campaigners condemn police crackdown on demonstrators who disrupted commemoration of ex-president’s birthday.

Activists in Azerbaijan have accused police of acting illegally in their heavy-handed break-up of a student protest at the weekend, when 50 protesters were detained.

During the protest on May 10, angry students in black shirts disrupted the Holiday of Flowers, a Baku commemoration of the birth of Azerbaijan’s ex-president, Heydar Aliev, prompting the police crackdown.

The students were furious that the city authorities were marking the anniversary but had not commemorated the murder of 12 people by a gunman in a city college last month.

Some stood and hissed in the central park, others tried to lay flowers on the steps of the State Oil Academy – site of the massacre – while others deliberately turned their backs on the official ceremony organised by the city. The police, perhaps warned by the plans being hatched on internet chatrooms, were quick to respond.

Human rights activists complained bitterly about the police actions, which they called disproportionate and unjustified.

“These detentions were completely unfounded. Young people in civilian clothes wished to express their protest. Such actions by the police run counter to the international obligations of Azerbaijan,” said Arzu Abdullayeva, head of the Azerbaijan National Committee of the Helsinki civilian assembly.

Many of the detainees appeared to have no connection to the protest, raising questions over the police response.

“I was just standing at the bus stop and waiting for a bus,” said Tamilla Alizade, whose all-black “Goth” outfit caused her to be swept up alongside 50 or so protesters. She spoke to IWPR as she walked out of the police station on the evening of May 10.

“I heard shouts from one side, and decided to go closer to see what was happening. Suddenly the grabbed me and said ‘you’re coming with us’. And they put me in the car,” she said.

Police and city authorities declined to tell IWPR the reasons for their allegedly heavy-handed response to the protests, but released most of the detained activists by evening without charge.

“They did not take any statement from me, and did not even check my passport. When I asked the reason for my arrest, they said it was not an arrest, they were just detaining us to clarify the situation,” said Arjen de Wolf, a Dutch national who heads The National Democratic Institute in Azerbaijan.

This was the fifth year that Baku has marked the Holiday of Flowers. Some 1.5 million flowers were flown in from 81 different countries, angering Baku residents who see it as a waste of money. The city authorities declined to reveal the precise amount of money spent on the celebrations.

“I do not have information about the budget of this holiday and, anyway, what difference does it make to you how much money was spent,” said Nurana Mammadova, spokeswoman for the Baku city government, told IWPR.

She refused to confirm press reports that city hall had spent 15-20 million manats (18-25 million US dollars) on its event, although the very thought of that expenditure was enough to shock other officials. Gulyar Ahmedova, for example, a member of parliament from the ruling New Azerbaijan party, accused the administration of wasting money.

Speaking in parliament, she said the city government should have used the cash for planting trees and building new parks, rather than buying temporary flowers with it.

The police were prepared for the protest, and had entrances to the central park – which is named after Heydar Aliev, who is father of the current president – blocked off in advance. Most of the detainees were only held for four hours, but people active in opposition politics were kept overnight.

In the massacre which took place on April 30, a young ethnically Azeri man from Georgia killed 12 people in the oil academy, then turned the gun on himself when he was surrounded by security forces. Some 13 other people were injured.

Analysts say the government would be foolish to underestimate the degree of popular anger the refusal to commemorate the tragedy caused in Azerbaijan, which had never before witnessed such a massacre.

“This [May 10] youth action must be a serious signal for the authorities. Next year, Azerbaijan has parliamentary elections. The authorities have taken almost all rights and possibilities from the opposition. You could almost say they have been pushed into a corner,” said Arif Yunusov, a political analyst.

Sabina Vaqifqizi is a correspondent for Radio Liberty in Baku. Shahin Rzayev is the IWPR country director in Azerbaijan.
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