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26 Nov 2005

Baku police crush opposition rally with force

ISN SECURITY WATCH (26/11/2005) - In a brutal display of force, riot police broke up the latest in a series of opposition rallies in Baku’s Galaba Square on Saturday evening, injuring dozens of protesters.

Hundreds of police charged the main reviewing stand where opposition Popular Front Party leader Ali Keremli had only moments before encouraged supporters to stay beyond the scheduled 5pm (local time) deadline to leave the square.

Dozens of opposition supporters were hurt as hundreds of police attacked, using batons initially to drive back demonstrators near the speakers’ podium.

As panicked demonstrators fled into the main crowd, they were met by a second phalanx of police who indiscriminately beat up men and women, including members of the Yeni Fekir (New Idea) youth movement.

Hundreds more police then attacked fleeing demonstrators with water cannons and tear gas as they ran towards the 20th January metro station, more than a kilometer away from Galaba Square.

In squads of 75 to 100 men, police roamed over a square kilometer area searching for pockets of demonstrators - some throwing rocks at police lines - and violently dispersing them in a series of skirmishes that lasted an hour after the rally was broken up.

For several days, Azerbaijan’s worst-kept secret has been that this weekend’s rally would see a tent city erected in a bid to re-gain momentum for the Azadlig (Freedom) opposition bloc and other opposition groups in the wake of the disputed 6 November parliamentary elections.

Many analysts and foreign newspapers have written off Azerbaijan’s “color revolution” in part due to the opposition’s confusing strategy of holding government-sanctioned rallies every weekend since the elections with no apparent endgame.

While Azadlig leaders Keremli and Isa Gambar have called for new elections and the resignation of President Aliev and his government, few analysts have seen this as a plausible outcome, citing weak support and a low voter turnout on 6 November.

Saturday’s rally had originally been scheduled for Sunday, but was moved up a day by the Baku mayor’s office at the last minute in what Azadlig members saw as a tactical move by the government to guarantee a low turnout.

While the crowd at 3:30pm local time was indeed small, the numbers soon swelled as marchers poured in along the main boulevard leading from the metro station.

The crowd of roughly 10,000 to 15,000 people sensed that Saturday’s rally was a watershed event, with many shouting, “Tents to the square!” as opposition leaders spoke from the main podium.

But demonstrators heard mixed messages from Gambar and Keremli.

Gambar, who ran unsuccessfully against Aliev in the 2003 presidential elections, told supporters: “There are two things the government has that we do not: One is money, and the other is violence. They are very good with violence, they are better at violence than the people […].”

Addressing the issue of whether to stay in the square, Gambar seemed to urge caution: “We can take our tents to the square anytime we want. We can do it next Saturday, we can do it on the 10th of December, which is the day of human rights. We don’t want to make a provocation. We don’t want the government to use these things against us. We don’t want people to suffer.”

By contrast, Keremli embraced taking a stand in Galaba Square, asking: “If you are afraid of the batons, can you fight in the war?”

“No!” the crowd answered.

As supporters began to sit in the square, Keremli then asked them to stand up: “We will make a decision together! We will not accept the unfairness of the system. We will absolutely not accept it. Do you agree with me or not?”

“Yes!” the crowd roared.

“It’s up to you to decide! The next step is yours! This is the right moment to make a move. The world is watching us! Do not be afraid of violence!” Keremli said, as the crowd made its choice to stay.

Police moved in very quickly and with military precision. In less than five minutes, Galaba Square was a scene of chaos. Among those injured was Keremli, who was struck at least once by a police baton.

In the meantime, Azadlig spokesman Ershad Nuriev told ISN Security Watch that the conflicting messages from Gambar and Keremli was symptomatic of a split between two factions within Azadlig.

As the two groups debated whether Saturday was the right time for a tent city, a majority consensus emerged, he said. “There was a difference of opinion between the majority and the minority. The majority supported Ali Keremli’s call to stay in the square […] Isa Gambar did not want to stay. The police attacked and suppressed us.”

Azadlig strategist Murad Gassanly warned ISN Security Watch that “this is what happens in a police state. Any government that uses such practices against its own people is doomed”.

Sakina Alieva, a 22 year-old recent graduate, and her aunt Khalida Kazumova, came to Baku from an outlying region to participate in the rally. She told ISN Security Watch that she and her aunt had been tear-gassed and beaten.

“The police attacked the people - they attacked children, they attacked women. We tried escaping,” she said. “[US] President [George] Bush should speak out about what our government has done.”

The local ATV and ANS television stations cited a police report saying that 18 police officers had been injured in the riots and 29 demonstrators had been arrested.

The police denied that water cannons had been used, although ISN Security Watch and others witnessed water cannons and tear gas being employed against demonstrators.

At press time, it was unclear how many people had been injured and hospitalized.

The local Turan news agency has reported that another rally is planned for next weekend.

(By Karl Rahder in Baku)