West turns a blind eye as activists crushed before Azerbaijan poll

The two-month election campaign has seen some of the opposition's most idealistic young campaigners jailed, brutally beaten by police, threatened with torture, cleverly framed and discredited and effectively neutralised as a political force.

Defiant to the last, they insist they are still on course to capture more votes than the government, but their hopes of replicating the success of campaigners in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan who toppled corruption-sodden Soviet-era regimes look slim.

The run-up to tomorrow's parliamentary elections was neither free nor fair, and there are serious international concerns about the equity of voting itself. But even if there is a row over falsified elections the democracy activists look ill-equipped to convert any popular discontent into regime change.

The millionaire Aliyev family dynasty, which has ruled the country with an iron fist for most of the past three decades and has multi-million pound property interests in London, has simply proved too clever and too willing to use force and intimidation.

Ilham Aliyev, the country's 40-year-old President, took over the mantle of his father, Heidar, in 2003 and has crafted a public image of himself and his regime as a permanent feature of Azeri life. He enjoys good relations with Washington and London, which have major interests in Azerbaijan's new oil pipeline, wields complete control over the broadcast media and has thousands of fiercely loyal riot police at his disposal.

The Aliyev mark is stamped all over Baku. Statues and billboards featuring the avuncular features and musings of the late Heidar Aliyev, who died in 2003, are everywhere. The cult of personality affords little room for alternative voices.

The Yeni Fikir (New Thinking) pro-democracy youth movement knows all about the regime's dislike of opposition. Set up last year, it was supposed to be the spearhead of the Orange movement and was the first opposition grouping to make orange, the colour of Ukraine's successful revolution, its own.

Crafted in the image of similar youth groups in the former Yugoslavia, Georgia and Ukraine, it began to hold noisy rallies. However, today it looks a spent force.

In August its leader, Ruslan Bashirli, 26, was arrested at his home by men in black masks. He was accused of trying to forcefully overthrow the government and of plotting dissent with security service agents from Armenia, Azerbaijan's sworn enemy.

The authorities claimed that the Armenian agents had suggested using live gunfire during an opposition rally in order to destabilise the country. America's National Democratic Institute, a non-profit organisation closely aligned to the US Democratic Party, was also accused of complicity in the plot.

Secret footage of Bashirli's "traitorous meeting" was broadcast on giant public screens in Baku and the young activist was thrown into jail for three months, a stretch that has since been extended to five. His fellow activists say he was framed.

Other activists have fared little better. Said Nuriyev, another leading light in Yeni Fikir, was arrested soon after Bashirli and is now under house arrest in a Baku hospital where he is recovering from a long-standing blood disorder.

Attempts to visit him - even by some of his own close family members - have been refused and when his fellow activists tried to see him they were barred from the hospital grounds and beaten by more than 100 baton-wielding policemen.

The movement's third big hitter, Ramin Tagiev, 26, has also been arrested and has similarly been accused of fomenting violent change. He has been given a three- month prison sentence and his friends and family have found it almost impossible to get news of his well-being.

Attempts to discredit Yeni Fikir did not end there. On one occasion activists returned to their campaign office to discover a white carrier bag containing four hand grenades and some TNT explosive.

Ahmad Shahidov, an activist who has not yet been locked up, says he believes it was another attempt to discredit his organisation. "The President was due to make a visit right across the street on the same day. We think they wanted to accuse us of wanting to kill the President."

With local and foreign media looking on, the activists eventually got the police to take the explosives off their hands.

Human Rights Watch says another activist, Sarvan Sarhanov, was detained by the police for six hours during which time they urged him to go on television to make a statement denouncing the movement. They brought a pair of pliers into the interrogation room and threatened to use them on his hands, but he did not comply and was eventually freed.

"These guys were just young people who had had enough of living in a country where everything in their lives was controlled by one family," Murad Gassanly, an activist for the opposition Freedom Bloc told The Independent.

"What happened to them shows what you get here if you become politically active. Anything against the regime carries serious repercussions."

The mainstream opposition has not been allowed to hold rallies in central Baku, or to put up its posters in many areas. It has been starved of all important air time and many of its rallies have ended with demonstrators being rushed to hospital after police beatings.

The opposition estimates that 1,500 activists have been detained since 5 September, 2,000 injured, 400 arrested and held for over a month, and 200 sentenced. Thirty prospective parliamentary candidates have also detained or beaten up.

Mr Aliyev has dismissed opposition criticism out of hand. He says that tomorrow's elections will be free and fair and that there is no need for a velvet revolution.

Last-minute concessions such as marking voters' hands with invisible ink and allowing exit polls mean, he insists, that the elections will be the country's freest yet.

America is watching closely and while Washington concedes that things could be better, the consensus seems to be that Mr Aliyev, the custodian of the Caspian Sea's oil riches, is a man they can do business with. Azerbaijan's border with Iran means, analysts say, that for America, stability is paramount.

History of a dynasty

* 1993: Heydar Aliyev declares himself President.

* 1994: Three members of special police force arrested after assassinations of deputy head of parliament and Aliyev's security chief. Later in the year, Azerbaijan signs contract with oil companies for use of three oil fields.

* 1995: Aliyev's New Azerbaijan Party wins election alleged to contravene international standards.

* 1998: Opposition activists arrested at protests against elections.

* 2001: Azerbaijan becomes full member of Council of Europe.

* 2002: Work starts on pipeline to carry oil from Azerbaijan to Turkey.

* 2003: Aliyev appoints son Ilham as Prime Minister. Three people killed in opposition demonstrations. In December, Aliyev dies in US hospital, aged 80.

* 2005: Oil starts flowing through pipeline. Police use force to break up opposition demonstrations in Baku before elections.


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