Protests in Azerbaijan shifted from the provinces to the capital, Baku, on January 26. Police showed little tolerance for the unsanctioned rally, taking dozens into custody, including prominent journalists and rights activists.
The January 26 demonstration in Baku was organized to show solidarity with the residents of Ismayilli, a provincial center roughly 200 kilometers (120 miles) northwest of Baku that was the scene of prolonged rioting earlier this week. The disturbance in Ismayilli was purportedly rooted in mounting frustration over growing economic inequality, as well as the high-handed governing style of regional political leaders.
As they attempted to gather in the capital on January 26, protesters chanted: "Ismayilli doesn’t sleep and Baku supports it! Take away the guns!" Security forces blocked access to Fountain Square, a usual venue for opposition protests. When demonstrators tried to shift to Sahil Park, police moved in wielding truncheons. Over 40 protesters were arrested, including investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, rights advocate Malahat Nasibova, and opposition blogger Emin Milli. Some protesters were reportedly subjected to pepper spray after they had been taken into police custody.
Ismayilova – a contributor to EurasiaNet.org, who asserts that she was the target of a government blackmail attempt in 2012 – was among those released after a few hours in custody. She was fined 400 manats (approximately 510 US dollars). Another arrested protest participant was reportedly fined 2,000 manats (about 2,550 US dollars). The average monthly salary in 2012 was 363 manat, according to government data. Milli reportedly was sentenced to 15 days of administrative detention for his role in the protest.
The Azerbaijani branch of the Human Rights House Foundation released a statement critical of the government’s response, saying that "by arresting within a crowd of protesters specifically these prominent human rights defenders, Azerbaijan authorities show that they use detention as a tool to punish critical voices.”
The forceful response and heavy punishments handed out on January 26 suggest that the Ismayilli rioting has struck a sensitive chord in the halls of power in Baku, and that authorities are worried about keeping the lid on popular frustration.
Gunel Ahmad is a freelance writer who specializes in Azerbaijani affairs.