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Caucasus Regime Denies Torture

Times Staff Writer

President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan on Saturday defended an ongoing political crackdown launched in the former Soviet republic after a mass protest against his election to succeed his father.

The day after Aliyev’s official landslide victory in an Oct. 15 vote that his key rival claimed to have won, police crushed a demonstration by thousands of protesters in a central square of Baku, the Azerbaijani capital.

About 1,000 opposition supporters were detained across the country in subsequent days, and 120 -- including at least eight prominent politicians -- remained imprisoned, said Isa Gambar, the candidate whom protesters considered the real winner. He spoke from Baku in a telephone interview Saturday.

New York-based Human Rights Watch cited similar figures in a report released last month.

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When asked at a news conference in the Russian capital about the report, Aliyev described the Baku protest as an attempt to overthrow the government by force.

“The unrest that took place immediately after the elections -- when demonstrators smashed up cars, attacked and stoned the police, and inflicted very severe injuries to law enforcers -- was naturally suppressed by our law enforcement bodies,” Aliyev said.

“Over the years of independence Azerbaijan has become a country that is capable of protecting itself. And it is its duty to put an end to these barbaric acts of hooliganism committed by a certain segment of the opposition.”

Many of those arrested in the postelection crackdown were subjected to severe beatings and other forms of torture, the Human Rights Watch report said. The 60-page document quoted numerous arrestees describing how police tried to force them to denounce Gambar and other opposition leaders. Statements made by those who yielded were broadcast by pro-government television, the report said.

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In crushing the Oct. 16 protest, security forces beat to death at least one person, Hamidaga Zakhidov, 52, whose corpse was viewed by the organization, the report said. It added that “several dozen army and police personnel were also wounded in the clashes,” and noted that when police began to clear the square, “opposition supporters who had commandeered a military truck rammed the vehicle into the advancing security forces.”

Typical of the incidents mentioned in the report is the story of Natik Jabiev, an Azerbaijan Democratic Party official. The report said Jabiev was taken to the office of the Interior Ministry’s Organized Crime Unit, where the chief of its anti-banditry department beat him at the start of a four-hour interrogation session. The department head, Jabiev said, wanted him to implicate his party’s top leaders in the postelection violence.

“I was handcuffed,” Jabiev is quoted as telling Human Rights Watch. “He was beating me with his fists and kicking me. He also hit me several times on the ears with his open palms and punched me in the kidneys. He told me to stand up and then kicked me in the testicles.”

Human Rights Watch quoted an anonymous interviewee, described as a respected village leader and local head of Gambar’s Musavat party, telling how he was tortured at the Organized Crime Unit with electric shocks in a chair designed for that purpose. He described being tied onto the chair, having something that looked like headphones put on his head and being asked: “Will you tell us what you know, or should we start?”

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When he replied that he had nothing to say, the interrogator extinguished a cigarette on the man’s hand and said, “OK, enjoy the music.” He was then shocked through the head until his nose bled, and shocked through his feet until he passed out, according to the report.

Aliyev, 42, denounced the report as “utterly nonobjective, not reflecting the real situation, lopsided and pursuing only one end -- namely to influence the young leadership of Azerbaijan.”

“Taking into consideration the geopolitical significance of our country, which is rich in natural resources, it is clear that Azerbaijan is naturally of great interest to certain circles,” he added.

“But I would like to warn that all attempts of such political and forcible pressure are doomed to failure.”

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Both the government and the opposition groups in this predominantly Muslim nation of 8 million have a generally pro-Western stance. The country, perched on the Caspian Sea’s western edge, is an increasingly important oil producer, and U.S. and European oil companies have a major presence there. A pipeline is now under construction from Baku to Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.

Leila Yunus, director of the Institute of Peace and Democracy, a Baku think tank, described the arrests as “an intimidation campaign aimed at scaring the people and preventing them from protesting in the future.”

The U.S. State Department has said that it was watching the situation closely and that trials should be fair, but Yunus warned that this was “not enough, for nothing is done to enforce these statements.” She added: “Azerbaijan is an example of how ideals of democracy and human rights have been betrayed and exchanged by Western countries for oil.”

Gambar said that authorities “had to resort to such mass arrests because the scale of public discontent caused by the falsification of the elections was huge -- tens of thousands of people took part in actions of public protest all over the country.”

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Foreign monitors said the day after the election that it was seriously flawed and failed to meet democratic standards, but did not say whether they believed Aliyev’s victory depended on a fraudulent vote count. An exit poll by pro-democracy organizations had shown Gambar taking 46% to Aliyev’s 24%.

The abuses cited in the Human Rights Watch report were only “the tip of a much bigger iceberg,” Gambar said. At trials that have started for several dozen detainees, “more new facts about cruel torture” have been revealed, he said.

“The Human Rights Watch people managed to talk only to those people who were free,” he said. “If one were to sit in these trials, there would not be any questions left who is right, Human Rights Watch or Ilham Aliyev.”

Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times’ Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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