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Azerbaijan cracks down on critics ahead of polls

Police detain an opposition activist during an unauthorized rally to demand the resignation of President Ilham Aliyev in Baku on December 10, 2012
Police detain an opposition activist during an unauthorized rally to demand the resignation of President Ilham Aliyev in Baku on December 10, 2012

Sakina Gurbanova says her son is facing 12 years in prison for daring to challenge Azerbaijan's government ahead of upcoming presidential elections in the tightly controlled ex-Soviet state.

Arrested along with six others after an April rally over non-combat deaths in the army and held ever since, Gurbanova’s son Zaur Gurbanli has been charged with illegal weapon possession and attempting to create public disorder.

“In reality though, by arresting my son and other young activists, the government wanted to scare the youth who weren’t afraid of taking on the authorities,” Gurbanova told AFP.

Rights activists say the 26-year-old's detention is part of a wider push to stamp out dissent ahead of polls Wednesday that look certain to see incumbent Ilham Aliyev -- who took over in 2003 after the death of his father Heydar, a former KGB officer and Communist-era boss -- claim a third term.

Displays of public discontent often meet a tough response in the secular but predominantly Muslim Caucasus country, whose oil resources make it attractive to the West.

But rights groups say authorities have ramped up efforts to stamp out critical voices before the election by jailing opponents and passing laws aimed at curbing online dissent.

“This year the Azerbaijani authorities have been engaged in an unprecedented crackdown to silence all forms of criticism,” says Rebecca Vincent, advocacy director of the Baku-based Human Rights Club, which brings together Azerbaijani activists.

"There are now more than 100 people in detention or prison for politically motivated reasons," Vincent said.

Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev (L) speaks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, in Baku, on August 13, 2013
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev (L) speaks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, in Baku, on August 13, 2013

A rare spate of popular demonstrations at the start of the year -– including several days of rioting in the town of Ismayilli, where local government buildings were targeted by crowds fed up with corruption -- seem to have shaken the authorities.

“These protests showed that Azerbaijanis are not as politically passive as it might seem," said Vincent, who once served as a US diplomat in Baku.

"In response, the authorities used excessive force to disperse protesters and carried out mass arrests of protest organisers and participants."

Like Gurbanli and his fellow youth activists, prominent opposition figures involved in those protests were arrested and remain behind bars, seriously disrupting opposition preparations for the polls.

“The absence of a large number of political prisoners has affected the election process,” said Isa Gambar, head of the opposition Musavat party, whose deputy is in jail over the Ismayilli riots.

Azerbaijan’s weakened and usually fragmented opposition, which largely boycotted previous polls in 2008, has come together on this occasion to back a single candidate for president.

Initially that choice was the Oscar-winning playwright Rustam Ibragimbekov. But officials blocked his candidacy over his dual Russian citizenship and the opposition was forced to switch to historian and former lawmaker Jamil Hasanli.

Despite the rare unity from the opposition, most concede that it has little chance of making an impression at the polls.

Activists put that down to the lack of a level playing field.

Opposition leader Isa Gambar takes part in a campaign rally in Baku on September 22, 2013, ahead of presidential elections on October 9
Opposition leader Isa Gambar takes part in a campaign rally in Baku on September 22, 2013, ahead of presidential elections on October 9

“There is a huge difference between the opportunities for the incumbent president Aliyev and the other candidates,” Natig Jafarli, executive secretary of the Republican Alternative (REAL) opposition party.

The government rejects claims that the polls are unfair and denies that the arrests of opposition activists were aimed at silencing critical voices.

"None of this has anything to do with the upcoming presidential elections," said Ali Hasanov, the head of the president's sociopolitical department.

Aliyev is not personally campaigning and rising living standards fuelled by oil money over the past decade explain why he looks set to win, Hasanov said.

Despite the obstacles, those opposed to Aliyev’s rule say that discontent and activism -- especially among the youth -- is on the rise.

“Compared to the last elections, this time round the level of activism among the youth will be high,” said Aygun Panjaliyeva, a leading member of the opposition youth group to which Gurbanli belongs.

Families of those caught up in what they see as a government clampdown also remain largely defiant, while admitting that the impact on their lives has been painful.

“His arrest has really hit our family hard and we are very worried about him,” said Gurbanova.

“But on the other hand, I am proud of my son for fighting for justice and democracy and against corruption in our country.”

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