Azeri Opposition Vows to Keep Up Protest

BAKU (Reuters)–Opposition groups in Azerbaijan vowed to press on with anti-government demonstrations on Monday after security organs cracked down on thousands protesting the rule of President Haydar Aliyev.

The Caspian oil state’s prosecutor general called Saturday’s four-hour melee in the city center–in which the opposition said 100 people were hurt–an attempted coup–while an international watchdog group criticized the government for stopping the rally.

"We will not back away from holding demonstrations," said former President Abulfaz Elchibey–chairman of the Democratic Congress umbrella group which organized the rally.

"Haydar Aliyev cannot shake his KGB general habits. He thinks more of how to cling to power than of the people," Elchibey told Reuters.

"The nation will not allow these elections to go forward," he said.

Elchibey–who led the former Soviet republic as its first president from 1992-93–is one of five opposition candidates boycotting presidential elections on October 11.

They say election laws sponsored by the 75-year-old strongman and his virtual rubber-stamp parliament are unfair.

In particular they want equal representation on the Central Elections Commission. Aliyev and parliament currently have the right to name all of its 24 members. Aliyev has offered only six of the 24 places to the opposition–which they have rejected.

Aliyev–Azerbaijan’s KGB and then Communist boss in the 1970s and 1980s–has recently signed $40 billion worth of contracts with foreign firms to develop its Caspian energy reserves.

The election boycott has left him with no serious competition for a second five-year term.

Aliyev’s government stood by the crackdown despite criticism from some international groups. The state’s chief prosecutor said the protest amounted to an attempted coup.

"The actions of the opposition on Saturday can be evaluated as a first step to changing the existing order through force," Eldar Hasanov said. "The authorities will never give in to pressure and will never will allow anti-constitutional actions–including illegal meetings."

The National Democratic Institute –a US-based watchdog group whose poll observers are evaluating the October election–condemned the crackdown. "NDI representatives witnessed the attempts of political parties to conduct a publicly-announced rally. The rally was obstructed by police and others who used violence against the demonstrators to prevent a public gathering and disperse them," it said in a statement. "NDI condemns the use of violence by police and others against demonstrators. Such actions violate the Azerbaijani Constitution’s guarantees of the rights of free assembly and expression. They raise substantial doubts about whether the official respect for law and dissent that are indispensable for democratic elections exist in Azerbaijan."

Jerar Shtudmann–head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights–met Aliyev on Sunday behind closed doors. He called the violence "unfortunate."

On Friday he had warned that any crackdown would be a serious mistake.

Police said nine officers suffered medium or serious injuries in the fracas. They gave no figures for injuries among the opposition–which said 100 demonstrators were hurt.

The police said they arrested 15 people for disturbing public order and resisting arrest on Saturday–while opposition groups said as many as 100 people are still being detained. Among them–it said–is former prime minister Panakh Huseinov.

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