Azerbaijan Tortures Political Foes

NEW YORK (Reuters)–The government of oil-rich Azerbaijan has arrested and tortured political opponents since a disputed election last October–Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.

The New York-based group said its researchers found that authorities in the former Soviet republic bordering Iran prevented candidates from campaigning–and "brutality and arbitrary arrests" intimidated opposition supporters.

It said the government carried out "a well-organized fraud" on Oct. 15 election day in the presence of a large international election-monitoring team.

The presidential election put President Ilham Aliyev in power in place of his father–Haydar Aliyev–Azerbaijan’s longtime political ruler–who died two months later in a US clinic at the age of 80.

The Human Rights Watch Report–"Crushing Dissent: Repression–Violence and Azerbaijan’s Elections," also criticized foreign governmen’s–particularly the United States–for "muted and contradictory messages" about the election.

On a December visit to Azerbaijan–US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said ties between Washington and Azerbaijan would grow–despite election fraud charges. Azerbaijan provided about 125 troops for military operations in Iraq and 30 in Afghanistan–according to a US defense official.

After the vote–the State Department called for a probe of allegations of intimidation and ballot stuffing.

"In light of President Bush’s recent statemen’s on democracy in neighboring countries in the Middle East–US inaction on Azerbaijan is particularly troubling," Human Rights Watch said.

It said that in violence after the election–police used "brutal and excessive" force to suppress demonstrations. Almost 1,000 people were arrested in the weeks following the election–including national opposition leaders–party members–non-governmental activists–journalists and election officials and observers who challenged the way the vote was conducted.

"Human Rights Watch documented numerous cases of police torture through severe beatings–electric shocks–and threats of male rape against opposition leaders," the report said.

More than 100 detainees remain in custody and could face imprisonment of up to 12 years–said the report–which was based on hundreds of interviews with victims and eyewitnesses in 13 towns and cities in October and November.

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