Protests Hit Another Azerbaijani Town
|Publisher||Institute for War and Peace Reporting|
|Publication Date||16 May 2013|
|Citation / Document Symbol||CRS Issue 688|
|Cite as||Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Protests Hit Another Azerbaijani Town, 16 May 2013, CRS Issue 688, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/51961e8b4.html [accessed 28 September 2016]|
|Disclaimer||This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.|
For the second time this year, a row over a car crash in a provincial town in Azerbaijan has escalated into angry protests against corrupt, unaccountable officials.
The latest incident happened on May 9 in the town of Khudat, when a car driven by one Rovshan Safarov, a member of Azerbaijan's Border Guards Service, collided with the vehicle of local man Rauf Huseynov. Eyewitnesses said that in the argument that followed, Huseynov's elderly father was punched.
Khudat is close to Azerbaijan's northern border with Russia, along which border guards are stationed.
Onlookers saw the confrontation as typical of the bigger relationship between the state and the average citizen. At least 100 people took part in a street protest in the town, which has population of around 15,000.
"These officials, these soldiers, these policemen, and all their relatives - they just get away with anything. They do whatever they want, and they have no respect for ordinary people," said one middle-aged man who asked not to be named as he feared he could be arrested. "People are fed up with this lawlessness…. They weren't going to stand for this - they took to the streets to demand justice."
The incident was strongly reminiscent of events in the town of Ismayilli in January, when a car crash and the altercation that ensued brought residents out into the street. A hotel belonging to the offending driver was torched, and the protesters' anger then turned on the man's uncle, the local government chief for the district, whom they accused of presiding over corruption and mismanagement. (For more on the case, see Local Grievances Spark Protests in Azerbaijan and Azerbaijani President Sacks Local Leaders to Defuse Anger.)
After the protests in Khudat were dispersed by police, the national head of the Border Guards Service, Elchin Guliyev, arrived to find out what had happened.
Guliyev set the tone for the official response, claiming that the demonstration was staged by opposition groups. Again, this was similar to what happened in Ismayilli, where opposition activists were arrested as part of an official narrative claiming deliberate incitement.
Guliyev told the APA news agency that after a run-of-the-mill traffic accident, "certain destructive forces exploited the incident, spread false information and sought to raise tensions artificially".
The interior ministry followed suit with a statement claiming that "local opposition party functionaries politicised the car accident and in a bid to sow tension and division. They summoned a group of local residents and mustered them for a protest at the scene of the incident, in breach of public security and the law."
On May 10, four people were given ten days in detention each after being found guilty of organising the protest. They were the local head of the opposition Musavat party Heybat Amrah, party members Fikrat Aliyev and Aladdin Mirzayev, and local resident Nusrat Garayev.
Musavat's deputy head at national level, Gulaga Aslanli, denied that Amrah had been anywhere near the demonstration.
"Heybat Amrah lives in Khachmaz [district], and was at home during the incident. He also works as a journalist, so he received information about the protest and posted it on his Facebook page. That's why he was arrested," Aslanli said. "He was detained at home at three in the morning. How could he have organised the protest or summoned people to come to it without leaving his house?"
For four days after the men were detained, their whereabouts were unknown, leading to concerns that they would be mistreated.
Police said they were not in the town jail, and civilian and military prosecutors denied knowing where they were. On May 13, Musavat sent a team up to Khudat in an effort to trace the four, eventually discovering they were in Guba, a bigger town also in northern Azerbaijan.
"This afternoon, their relatives were able to hand over food for them, but their lawyers still haven't been able to meet them," Mustafa Hajibeyli, part of the Musavat team, said. "No one saw them for four days. Their location was initially concealed, and no meetings are being allowed even now. We're worried that they've been subjected to physical abuse, and that this is why one is being allowed to see them."
Political analysts in Azerbaijan say officials are missing the point by trying to pin the blame on their opponents for such grassroots expressions of anger, which as well as Ismayilli also include a case in Guba in March 2012, when thousands took to the streets after the local mayor insulted his constituents. (See Azerbaijan Town Kicks Out Mayor.)
"Such incidents have started occurring frequently of late," Arastun Orujlu, head of the East-West Research Centre, said. "The reason is that the waywardness and corruption of local officials is making life hard for ordinary people. There's already no work, and people are living in poverty, and then they get abusive behaviour from officials."
With a presidential election due this autumn and the incumbent Ilham Aliyev likely to get another term in office, Orujlu predicts that "the wave of protests will only grow bigger".
"Instead of dispersing these protests in brutal fashion, the authorities should be dealing with corrupt officials and undertaking reforms to make people's lives easier," he said. "If they don't, these mass disturbances will get even larger."