Azerbaijan rally turns into nightmare

PROTESTERS INJURED: Dozens were hospitalized after police used tear gas, water cannons and truncheons on demonstrators at anti-government rally in the capital


Mon, Nov 28, 2005 - Page 4

Thousands gathered on Saturday for what was supposed to have been a peaceful protest in Azerbaijan's capital, but when the rally turned to terrifying chaos, the only sign of his wife one demonstrator could find were her shoes.

"I was sifting through a pile of shoes and I found hers. At that moment I thought she was dead," said Ogtay Tahirov, a member of the former Soviet republic's opposition and one of some 10,000 police dispersed from Baku's Victory Square.

Supporters of Azerbaijan's opposition parties have gathered at the square every weekend since the republic held a parliamentary election Western observers considered to be marred by fraud.

Previous rallies dispersed peacefully and many opposition supporters came to Saturday's event with their families and children expecting to hear leaders of the opposition Azadliq (Freedom) alliance speak, before going home.

Demonstrators were demanding that the government of President Ilham Aliyev, whose supporters won a crushing victory at the election, hold a new, cleaner vote.

But as the time limit for the rally -- set by the oil-rich republic's authorities -- expired and protesters showed that they intended to stay for a sit-in, hundreds of riot police were sent in to break up the protest.

"It was terrible to see, people were trampled and I couldn't find my wife," Tahirov, the stoic 53-year-old, said, describing the moment when police locked their shields together and pushed the crowd from two sides with their truncheons over their heads.

In the panic that ensued, a number of people were crushed by a retreating crowd and many protesters lost their shoes as they ran from police who were firing tear gas guns and spraying demonstrators with water cannons.

After the crowd retreated and the tear gas fumes settled, a handful of people lay sprawled out on the asphalt unconscious amid the debris of discarded orange flags, banners and lost clothing.

Tahirov's wife Suraya, 52, was among them.

As armed security troops took control of the square, one of Tahirov's relatives called to say that Suraya had been found and taken to a hospital.

"They said police let dogs loose on someone who had tried to help her," Tahirov said.

Standing next to Suraya's hospital cot with his son and daughter who attended the rally with their own children, Tahirov said police beat his wife so severely they broke one of her ribs.

Tahirov's is just one of many stories that emerged after dozens of people were sent to hospitals around Baku in the aftermath of the rally.

The seven-year-old daughter of the editor of a local news agency was hospitalized with both her legs broken, colleagues said.

And in the hospital room next door to Suraya's, 26-year-old Yashar Rahimov, his breathing labored, told reporters how he was beaten as he tried to shield a 13-year-old girl.

"I was on the square to fight, not for myself, but for my children," said Rahimov, a Baku resident who sends most of the money he earns there to his family, who live in an impoverished town in central Azerbaijan.

In the headquarters of the opposition Popular Front party after the rally, doctors treated a dozen activists wearing blood-smeared clothes with cuts and bruises.

Fearful of the kind of post-election revolts that toppled entrenched regimes in Ukraine last year and in Azerbaijan's neighbor Georgia in 2003, officials have warned they will not tolerate demonstrations that last more than a few hours.

Aliyev's late father Heydar ruled the republic for the better part of three decades before Ilham replaced him in a controversial presidential election in 2003. Heydar Aliev died soon afterwards at age 80.

Police officials justified their use of force by branding the opposition "provocateurs" who had tried to stay on the square in violation of public order.

"They were calling for disobedience ... we warned them," Baku deputy police chief Yashar Aliyev said, adding that 29 people had been arrested.

But the US, accused by the opposition of toning down criticism of Azerbaijan because of its oil interests here, was quick to condemn the police action as an "unjustified and unprovoked use of force."

Opposition leaders have already called for another rally.

The Tahirov family at least, said they would be among those attending.

"I feel like its my fault my family members are getting hurt," Tahirov said, "but I will go and fight for my rights."