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Rights Group Criticizes Crackdown on Opposition in Azerbaijan - 2004-01-23

In a new report released Friday, the New York-based independent monitoring group Human Rights Watch says Azerbaijan "is experiencing its gravest human rights crisis of the past ten years." Human Rights watch describes a crackdown on Azerbaijani opposition, including political arrests and torture, following last October's disputed presidential elections.

In its 55-page report, Human Rights Watchs (HRW) says Azerbaijani authorities manipulated the October 11 election in favor of ruling-party candidate Ilham Aliev and intimidated and beat opposition supporters.

After the election, the report says, more than 1,000 people were arrested in a government campaign against the opposition. Over 100 people remain in custody, although few have been charged with a crime.

Human Rights Watch's acting director of its Europe and Central Asia Division, Rachel Denber, says Azerbaijani authorities used violent post-election demonstrations as a pretext to rein in opposition supporters.

"They did this by casting a huge net to arrest people who they suspected of being involved in the violence and while they were in custody, these opposition supporters, or suspected opposition supporters, were beaten and tortured to make them either resign from their political parties, to get them to renounce or make public denunciations of the oppositions political parties they were involved with, or to denounce particular (opposition) leaders, or to implicate the leaders in the violence that had taken place," she said.

Ms. Denber says critics in many of Azerbaijan's municipalities, who did not participate in the violence in the capital, Baku, were also arrested, as were people who refused to sign allegedly falsified vote tallies.

The report covers a two month period after the election and is based on interviews with more than 200 alleged witnesses and victims. It says police tortured suspects with "severe beatings, electric shocks and threats of male rape against opposition leaders."

The HRW acting Director says the group is calling on the international community to press Azerbaijan to investigate widespread torture and charges of election fraud.

"We want to see pressure on Azerbaijan to have an independent commission to investigate the election fraud. These elections were stolen and everybody knows it," she said.

Human Rights Watch blames a political system that gives complete and unchecked authority to the president for the crackdown. The group released its report just days before the Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly is scheduled to debate Azerbaijan's compliance with the organization's human rights requirements.