Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Azerbaijan: Run-Up to Election Not Free or Fair

(New York, October 31, 2005) ? The Azerbaijani government's
campaign of violence and intimidation against opposition candidates
and supporters has extinguished the possibility of free and fair
parliamentary elections on November 6, Human Rights Watch said in
a briefing paper released today.
The 30-page briefing paper documents mass arrests, beatings and other
forms of intimidation, as well as restrictions on campaigning and an
overwhelming pro-government media bias that have undermined the
integrity of the vote.

"People cannot vote freely in an election when the authorities are
beating up opposition supporters and preventing candidates from
campaigning," said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at
Human Rights Watch. "Azerbaijan's history of election fraud and
abuse is threatening to repeat itself."

Human Rights Watch documented how police violence and arbitrary
arrests have been endemic during the campaign period. Police have
beaten and detained hundreds of opposition activists during attempts to
hold rallies in the center of the capital, Baku. In at least one incident,
police also brutally beat detainees in a police station after arrest.

Many of the demonstrators have been sentenced to several days in
prison for offenses against public order. The authorities have
particularly targeted youth movement activists, detaining and
harassing their members. The recent arrests of three members of the
opposition-oriented youth movement Yeni Fikir (New Thinking),
which the authorities say is trying to violently overthrow the
government, are of concern. While Human Rights Watch is not in a
position to investigate the government's allegations against Yeni Fikir,
the fact that these allegations occur during a government campaign of
intimidation and harassment of opposition groups and youth activists
suggest that the cases may be politically motivated.

At the same time, the authorities have heavily interfered in the election
process in favor of government-sponsored candidates. The government
has stacked the Central Election Commission and local election
commissions with its supporters. Moreover, it has failed to adopt
measures proposed by the international community aimed at reducing
the likelihood of fraud, such as changing the composition of the
election commissions.

Local government authorities and law enforcement officers have
obstructed opposition and independent candidates from holding
meetings with voters. Police have also detained campaign workers for
opposition and independent candidates and warned them to stop their
political work.

"The government is simply unwilling to allow a free and fair election,"
said Cartner. "We are concerned that this could lead to a bloody
crackdown against protesters."

The 2003 presidential election, which the Organization for Security
and Cooperation in Europe found to be fraudulent, was followed by
violent protests met with excessive force from police and other law
enforcement agencies that killed at least one protester. In the wake of
the political upheavals following falsified elections in Georgia,
Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, the opposition has raised expectations that
democratic change is now possible in Azerbaijan as well.

The international community has made significant efforts to encourage
free and fair elections. But the United States, a key player in the
region, has sent mixed signals about how strongly it will respond if the
elections are found to be fraudulent.

Human Rights Watch called on the Azerbaijani government to
immediately stop harassing opposition and independent activists, to
allow freedom of assembly and to desist from intimidation on election
day. Human Rights Watch further called on the international
community to ensure that it will not be "business as usual" with
Azerbaijan if that country delivers another round of seriously flawed
elections.

To view this document on the Human Rights Watch web site, please
visit: http://www.hrw.org/english/docs/2005/10/31/azerba11943.htm

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