Police in Azerbaijan used water cannons and stun grenades to disperse people protesting against conscript deaths in the army.
Estimates of numbers at the March 10 demonstration vary, with some media outlets putting the figure at 3,000.
The water cannons struck journalists and bystanders as well as protesters. Two IWPR correspondents were drenched, despite wearing jackets identifying them as press.
Although some media outlets reported that rubber bullets were fired, the IWPR journalists who were present were unable to confirm that. They generally found that police behaved professionally and without the kind of violence seen at previous rallies in Baku.
The protesters chanted, “Say no to soldiers’ deaths”, “The army is not a morgue”, and “The commander in chief must answer for this”.
According to Doktrina, a defence affairs research centre, of the 17 soldiers who have died this year, only three were killed by Armenian forces along the front lines, where a tenuous ceasefire has been in place since the Nagorny Karabakh ended in 1994. Last year, the proportion was similar, with 20 combat deaths out of a total of 97 fatalities in the military. (IWPR looked at this issue in January: Azeri Anger Roused by Soldier's Death.)
Police detained around 100 people at the demonstration, although most were freed by the end of the day. Around 20 were given minor sentences. Three will spend a week in jail, while the others were given hefty fines of between 400 and 600 manats, or 510-765 US dollars.
Three days before the protest, police arrested a three activists from an opposition youth group called NIDA and accused them of preparing an insurrection.
Officers said they found petrol bombs and marijuana when searching the houses of Bakhtiyar Quliyev, Mahammad Azizov and Shahin Novruzlu. Relatives of the three men insisted the evidence had been planted.
On March 9, the day before the protest, the three men were shown on state television admitting their guilt and saying they had been plotting revolution. The leaders of NIDA said the three could have been tortured into confessing, and denied any violent plans against the state.
On March 14, a fourth NIDA activist, Rashad Hasanov, was arrested.
Opposition leaders said the use of televised confessions coupled with robust police action against protests were signs the government was taking a harsher line in anticipation of a presidential elections this autumn.
“This performance with the arrested activists and the ‘revolution’ charges, as well as the use of water cannons, demonstrate that the government fears increased activity from civil society, Ali Kerimli, leader of the Popular Front of Azerbaijan, said, adding, “I am proud of our young people.”
Government representatives portrayed the March 10 demonstration as the work of agents provocateurs.
“A few provocateurs are trying to exploit the tragedy of soldiers’ deaths for their own personal ends,” Siyavush Novruzov, a leading member of the governing Yeni Azerbaijan party who was present at the protest as an observer, said. “They are trying to raise their political profile ahead of the election.”
Eldar Sabiroglu, spokesman for Azerbaijan’s defence ministry, offered a similar explanation.
“Certain groups have an interest in sowing distrust between the army and society. They are trying to exploit the tears of the mothers of the dead soldiers for their own foul ends,” he said.
Uzeri Jafarov, a retired lieutenant-colonel who heads an association called Military Journalists, said the government was to blame for failing to introduce the military reforms that were needed to end the wave of deaths.
“Even if we appointed the most famous general in the world as defence minister, the problem would not be solved until the laws are changed,” he said.
Jafarov said the age of conscription should be raised from 18 to 20, and the army should move to being a professional rather than conscripted force.
Elkhan Shahinoglu, head of the Atlas think tank, said the government would be unwise to dismiss the protest as an opposition publicity stunt.
“The voices of the dissatisfied must be heard, otherwise these protests could turn into something more radical. There has to be civilian control over what’s happening in the army. Every soldier’s death must be fully investigated and the results made available to society,” he said.
Natiq Jafarli, executive secretary of the opposition REAL movement, doubted the government would do anything to improve life for conscripts.
“The government has had both the opportunity and the preconditions for pursuing army reforms, it did not make use of them,” Jafarli said. “Presumably they think that any concessions in an election year will look like weakness. We need to hold more protests.”
Seymur Kazimov is a freelance journalist in Azerbaijan. Shahin Rzayev is IWPR’s Azerbaijan Country Director.