On September 12 up to 1,000 supporters of Azerbaijan’s main opposition parties, which are boycotting the upcoming presidential election, attempted to break through police cordons to hold a rally in Baku’s central square. The rally was meant to protest against what the opposition regards as unfair conditions for the presidential election campaign. Clashes developed around the headquarters of the Popular Front and the Musavat parties, where riot police used truncheons to push back the demonstrators. The latter reacted by throwing stones and bottles. The police briefly broke into the Popular Front’s offices, struck several PF leaders and arrested some of its activists. By the end of the day the authorities released most of those arrested but kept fifteen of them, including former Prime Minister Panah Huseinov, in custody for investigation. Dozens of protesters and nine policemen were reported injured in the melee.
Baku’s Mayor Rafael Alahverdiev, who is legally empowered to authorize the use of city venues for rallies and public events, denied the use of the central square, which has for years been declared out of bounds for political rallies. The mayor offered Baku’s motor race stadium for a venue. The opposition had accepted this solution for its August 15 rally, which gathered 5,000 supporters; and President Haidar Aliev’s campaign organization has also scheduled a rally at that stadium.
The September 12 clash, the first of this type and magnitude since Aliev came to power, represents a political and psychological setback for the authorities. They had been cautioned in advance by Western representatives against taking a rigid stance that might trigger violence. Several Western representatives, now in Baku to monitor the electoral campaign, were cited as criticizing the authorities for using force (Turan, Assa-Irada, ANS TV (Baku), AP, Reuters, September 12 and 13).
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