Azerbaijan Moves to Silence Opposition after Poll

BAKU (Reuters)–Oil-rich Azerbaijan’s newly-elected president moved to silence critics on Friday as police arrested an opposition leader and vowed to prosecute organizers of a violent protest against the poll result.

Police detained some 200 opposition supporters after riots on Thursday in protest against the election victory of Ilham Aliyev–who took over from his ailing father–Haydar Aliyev–in the first dynastic succession of the ex-Soviet world.

At least two were reported dead and hundreds injured in the protest–cut short when police stormed a crowd of about 3,000–wielding truncheons–tear gas and water cannon in scenes not witnessed in the oil-rich Caspian state for a decade.

The violence highlighted the tensions facing the new president in a country long criticized by human rights groups but backed by Western governmen’s and investors–including BP–in an oil pipeline being built from Baku to the Mediterranean Sea.

Aliyev’s supporters and police blamed the unrest on the opposition–especially the Musavat Party led by presidential runner-up Isa Gambar–whose home was surrounded and bodyguards detained by police. Some called for Musavat to be banned.

“We have to disinfect the Musavat party,” Siyavush Novruzov–deputy executive secretary for Aliyev’s party–told an extraordinary parliamentary session.

The parliament–a largely rubber stamp body loyal to Aliyev–voted unanimously to strip Igbal Agazade–leader of another opposition party–of his immunity from prosecution. He had addressed the crowd at the protest.

He was later arrested for inciting violence–sources close to his party told Reuters. Aliyev–speaking on Azeri state television–compared the unrest to the political turmoil and bloodshed that racked the nation at the end of the Soviet era.

“There will be no return to the past,” he said. “The Azeri people have made their choice in favor of democracy–stability and progress.”

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe–a democracy watchdog–has said the election failed to meet international standards and the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused police of using excessive force.

“The violence could have been avoided–had the Azerbaijani authorities given political space to the opposition,” HRW senior researcher Peter Bouckaert was quoted as saying in a statement.

MORE DETENTIONS FEARED

On Aliyev’s television channel–pictures of injured soldiers and protesters smashing cars and buses were set to the rousing music of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. A red X was then slapped across the face of Gambar with the words “Say no to fascism.” Interior Minister Ramil Usubov–speaking on Azeri television–blamed the unrest on eight opposition figures.

“The people who have committed–provoked and organized mass disturbances have to be brought to book,” he said. “I say–in advance–Isa Gambar–your arrest could be delayed for several days. But if these actions–blood and crimes continue–nobody–including Isa Gambar–will be able to avoid responsibility.” Opposition members said they feared more arrests.

“Isa Gambar will never go into exile,” Gambar told Reuters.

“But Isa Gambar in prison–that could be seen.”

In Baku’s main Freedom Square–hundreds of soldiers trained with shields and truncheons. The city center was tense–with riot police on street corners around opposition headquarters. Usubov said over 50 policemen and 16 soldiers were injured in Thursday’s protest–20 seriously. One interior officer received stab wounds. He said one protester was killed. Rights groups said a total of 300 were injured. Other officials said two were dead. A five-year-old boy–face covered in bruises–was fighting for his life in a Baku hospital.

Aliyev has vowed to pursue the policies of his father–the dominant force in the Caspian state since the 1960s. Aliyev senior is being treated for heart and kidney complaints at a US clinic–from where he cast his vote.

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