BAKU (RFE/RL)—Opposition supporters in Azerbaijan have staged an anti-government rally in Baku, calling for reforms, and also demanding the resignation of the country’s authoritarian President Ilham Aliyev.
The protesters also demanded the release of a dozen political activists detained during antigovernment protests last year.
The demonstration on April 8 was the first that have been sanctioned by Azerbaijani authorities after similar protests last year ended in a violent government crackdown.
Organizers of the rally claimed that more than 10,000 people took part in the demonstration. Baku police, however, put the number of protesters at around 1,200.
A statement by Baku police said the protesters were members and supporters of several opposition movements, including the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, (APFP), Musavat (Equality), and the People’s Party, as well as several nongovernmental organizations and youth groups.
Ali Kerimli, the leader of the APFP made a speech at the rally calling for greater freedoms in the country.
“The Azerbaijani government led by Ilham Aliyev is carrying out a policy that has been destroying the Azerbaijani opposition, and stifling independent voices – by banning demonstrations – over the past seven years,” he said.
Isa Gambar, the leader of the Musavat opposition party, likened the situation in Azerbaijan to Arab countries that experienced a wave of popular uprisings leading to regime changes last year.
“We have always been sure the wave of the changes, democracy and freedom in the world will come to Azerbaijan, too,” he said. “However, at the same time, we want this process to take place in peaceful ways, without confrontation and – unlike the Arab countries — without bloodshed. That is our choice. If events take a different turn, the responsibility for that would lie with Aliyev’s government.”
A member of the APFP told RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service that he and 10 other activists were beaten by police on their way to the rally.
Police in Baku have denied the allegations.
The organizers of the demonstration said authorities had disrupted transport links to restrict the number of protestors heading to the protests.
Locals say hundreds of police have set up security booths around the city.
Pro-democracy opposition activists in the oil-rich Caspian nation had staged rallies in Baku last year, but police cracked down on the protests.
At least, 16 opposition activists were arrested during the protests. Some of them have been released, but no fewer than 12 remain in custody.