West turns a blind eye as activists crushed before Azerbaijan poll


By Andrew Osborn in Baku 
Published: 05 November 2005 

http://news.independent.co.uk/europe/article324954.ece

Briefly the democracy activists of Azerbaijan had
dared to dream of an "Orange revolution", but the
oil-rich former Soviet republic will contest what were
supposed to be the country's first democratic
elections tomorrow in an atmosphere of fear. 

The two-month election campaign has seen some of the
opposition's most idealistic young campaigners jailed,
brutally beaten by police, threatened with torture,
cleverly framed and discredited and effectively
neutralised as a political force.

Defiant to the last, they insist they are still on
course to capture more votes than the government, but
their hopes of replicating the success of campaigners
in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan who toppled
corruption-sodden Soviet-era regimes look slim.

The run-up to tomorrow's parliamentary elections was
neither free nor fair, and there are serious
international concerns about the equity of voting
itself. But even if there is a row over falsified
elections the democracy activists look ill-equipped to
convert any popular discontent into regime change.

The millionaire Aliyev family dynasty, which has ruled
the country with an iron fist for most of the past
three decades and has multi-million pound property
interests in London, has simply proved too clever and
too willing to use force and intimidation.

Ilham Aliyev, the country's 40-year-old President,
took over the mantle of his father, Heidar, in 2003
and has crafted a public image of himself and his
regime as a permanent feature of Azeri life. He enjoys
good relations with Washington and London, which have
major interests in Azerbaijan's new oil pipeline,
wields complete control over the broadcast media and
has thousands of fiercely loyal riot police at his
disposal.

The Aliyev mark is stamped all over Baku. Statues and
billboards featuring the avuncular features and
musings of the late Heidar Aliyev, who died in 2003,
are everywhere. The cult of personality affords little
room for alternative voices.

The Yeni Fikir (New Thinking) pro-democracy youth
movement knows all about the regime's dislike of
opposition. Set up last year, it was supposed to be
the spearhead of the Orange movement and was the first
opposition grouping to make orange, the colour of
Ukraine's successful revolution, its own.

Crafted in the image of similar youth groups in the
former Yugoslavia, Georgia and Ukraine, it began to
hold noisy rallies. However, today it looks a spent
force.

In August its leader, Ruslan Bashirli, 26, was
arrested at his home by men in black masks. He was
accused of trying to forcefully overthrow the
government and of plotting dissent with security
service agents from Armenia, Azerbaijan's sworn enemy.

The authorities claimed that the Armenian agents had
suggested using live gunfire during an opposition
rally in order to destabilise the country. America's
National Democratic Institute, a non-profit
organisation closely aligned to the US Democratic
Party, was also accused of complicity in the plot.

Secret footage of Bashirli's "traitorous meeting" was
broadcast on giant public screens in Baku and the
young activist was thrown into jail for three months,
a stretch that has since been extended to five. His
fellow activists say he was framed.

Other activists have fared little better. Said
Nuriyev, another leading light in Yeni Fikir, was
arrested soon after Bashirli and is now under house
arrest in a Baku hospital where he is recovering from
a long-standing blood disorder.

Attempts to visit him - even by some of his own close
family members - have been refused and when his fellow
activists tried to see him they were barred from the
hospital grounds and beaten by more than 100
baton-wielding policemen.

The movement's third big hitter, Ramin Tagiev, 26, has
also been arrested and has similarly been accused of
fomenting violent change. He has been given a three-
month prison sentence and his friends and family have
found it almost impossible to get news of his
well-being.

Attempts to discredit Yeni Fikir did not end there. On
one occasion activists returned to their campaign
office to discover a white carrier bag containing four
hand grenades and some TNT explosive.

Ahmad Shahidov, an activist who has not yet been
locked up, says he believes it was another attempt to
discredit his organisation. "The President was due to
make a visit right across the street on the same day.
We think they wanted to accuse us of wanting to kill
the President."

With local and foreign media looking on, the activists
eventually got the police to take the explosives off
their hands.

Human Rights Watch says another activist, Sarvan
Sarhanov, was detained by the police for six hours
during which time they urged him to go on television
to make a statement denouncing the movement. They
brought a pair of pliers into the interrogation room
and threatened to use them on his hands, but he did
not comply and was eventually freed.

"These guys were just young people who had had enough
of living in a country where everything in their lives
was controlled by one family," Murad Gassanly, an
activist for the opposition Freedom Bloc told The
Independent.

"What happened to them shows what you get here if you
become politically active. Anything against the regime
carries serious repercussions."

The mainstream opposition has not been allowed to hold
rallies in central Baku, or to put up its posters in
many areas. It has been starved of all important air
time and many of its rallies have ended with
demonstrators being rushed to hospital after police
beatings.

The opposition estimates that 1,500 activists have
been detained since 5 September, 2,000 injured, 400
arrested and held for over a month, and 200 sentenced.
Thirty prospective parliamentary candidates have also
detained or beaten up.

Mr Aliyev has dismissed opposition criticism out of
hand. He says that tomorrow's elections will be free
and fair and that there is no need for a velvet
revolution.

Last-minute concessions such as marking voters' hands
with invisible ink and allowing exit polls mean, he
insists, that the elections will be the country's
freest yet.

America is watching closely and while Washington
concedes that things could be better, the consensus
seems to be that Mr Aliyev, the custodian of the
Caspian Sea's oil riches, is a man they can do
business with. Azerbaijan's border with Iran means,
analysts say, that for America, stability is
paramount.

History of a dynasty

* 1993: Heydar Aliyev declares himself President.

* 1994: Three members of special police force arrested
after assassinations of deputy head of parliament and
Aliyev's security chief. Later in the year, Azerbaijan
signs contract with oil companies for use of three oil
fields.

* 1995: Aliyev's New Azerbaijan Party wins election
alleged to contravene international standards.

* 1998: Opposition activists arrested at protests
against elections.

* 2001: Azerbaijan becomes full member of Council of
Europe.

* 2002: Work starts on pipeline to carry oil from
Azerbaijan to Turkey.

* 2003: Aliyev appoints son Ilham as Prime Minister.
Three people killed in opposition demonstrations. In
December, Aliyev dies in US hospital, aged 80.

* 2005: Oil starts flowing through pipeline. Police
use force to break up opposition demonstrations in
Baku before elections. 





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