Azeri Opposition Leaders Face Prison

BAKU (Reuters)–Azerbaijan’s chief prosecutor on Tuesday threatened leading opposition figures with jail sentences for insulting President Haydar Aliyev during anti-government demonstrations last weekend.

Eldar Hasanov accused leading opposition figures of wanting to overthrow Aliyev and said five criminal cases had been opened over statemen’s made at the rallies which “defame the honor and dignity of the president,” a crime under Azeri law.

“In Azerbaijan there is a campaign going on which attempts to destroy state structures. Those who attempt to grab power should know they are knocking on the door to prison,” he told the Melli Mejlis–or parliament.

He singled out Azerbaijan’s top three opposition figures–Abulfaz Elchibey–head of the Popular Front–Musavat (Equality) leader Isa Gambar and Etibar Mamedov of the National Independence Party.

Mamedov–who helped lead Azerbaijan to independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and spent time in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison in the 1980s for dissident activities–scoffed at the threat of arrest.

“I’m not worried about this. It’s just a scare tactic. I lived through Lefortovo so I am not easily frightened,” he told Reuters by telephone.

Interior Minister Ramil Usubov accused “foreign intelligence services” of working with opposition leaders to foment unrest.

He did not say which foreign countries–but mentioned they had been working with former parliament speaker Rasul Guliyev–currently believed to be in exile in the United States and wanted by Azerbaijan on corruption charges.

Other members of the body–dominated by Aliyev backers–blamed Iran and Russia–with which Azerbaijan has strained ties–for trying to sponsor unrest.

The Caspian Sea state has recently signed contracts worth billions of dollars with foreign firms to develop its offshore oil reserves.

Several dozen people were reported injured after the Baku rallies protesting against Aliyev’s rule were violently broken up on Saturday and Sunday.

Opposition leaders plan more rallies later this month and say they will not relent until Aliyev resigns.

On Saturday–baton-wielding riot police beat marchers while on Sunday protesters were attacked by a group of men in plain clothes who opposition parties claim have close ties to Aliyev.

Hasanov denied any government role in the attack.

“Regardless of who sent these people–they will be arrested,” he said.

Hasanov warned Azerbaijan’s small independent media that journalists who insult the president also faced legal action.

The weekend rallies were held to protest against Aliyev’s victory in last month’s presidential election. His foes claim he rigged the results–which gave him 76.1 percent of the vote.

Foreign observers said the election failed to meet international standards and was marred by instances of fraud and irregularities mainly committed by Aliyev’s forces.

The US State Department has expressed concern over the rally crackdown and has asked the government to investigate.

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