Police accused of turning blind eye to attack on Azerbaijan opposition leader


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The Independent Online

One of Azerbaijan’s most prominent opposition figures has been assaulted while police apparently stood to one side and did not intervene.

Isa Gambar, the leader of the Musavat party and a potential candidate in presidential elections later this year, said that around 100 people attacked him and other party officials, assaulting them and damaging their cars, while police apparently stood to one side and did not intervene.

Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev has a firm grip on the small, oil-rich nation, and tolerates little dissent. Tensions are rising ahead of presidential elections due later this year, in which he will seek a third term in office. Mr Aliyev beat Mr Gambar in 2003 presidential elections that were widely believed to be unfair. He took over from his father, Heydar Aliyev, who died later that year.

The attack took place in the southern city of Lenkoran, and Mr Gambar and his entourage had to flee the scene, while being followed and coming under attack from stones thrown by a crowd they said appeared to be commanded by plainclothes security agents. “The apparently organised nature of the ambush on Isa Gambar’s convoy and the failure of the police to intervene is clearly very worrying and needs to be investigated,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Director for Europe and Central Asia, adding that the incident was just one of a number of worrying developments ahead of the elections. “Despite recently releasing a number of prisoners of conscience, the Azerbaijani government continues to arrest opposition activists for peacefully expressing dissent,” he said. Azeri authorities have not commented on the attack.

Over the weekend, an opposition rally in the capital Baku protesting against the death of army conscripts was broken up by riot police, and 21 of the participants were hit with fines of up to £500, higher than the average monthly wage in the country. They were charged under a new law that came into force late last year that greatly increased potential fines for “unsanctioned” demonstrations, seen as part of the government’s attempt to stifle outbreaks of dissent ahead of the elections.

The authorities do not allow protests in central Baku, and have a stronghold over most media in the country, with opposition figures such as Mr Gambar forced to garner support through personal campaigning and online. The protest had been organised through Facebook, with over 17,000 people joining an online campaign over the death of conscripts in non-combat situations. It was prompted by the death last week of an 18-year-old conscript who was apparently beaten to death at an army base in the west of the country.