Azerbaijan's top election authority performed an abrupt about-face Tuesday and said that voters could use Soviet-era passports and temporary documents as proof of their identity when voting in this weekend's parliamentary election. The move came just hours after a group representing thousands of devout Muslim women appealed to President Ilham Aliev to repeal the government ban on identity papers bearing pictures of women in hijabs, or Muslim head scarves. They said their rights as citizens and voters were being violated.
The group, led by a dissident imam in the capital Baku, had said that the women would be unable to cast votes in Sunday's election because they have no identity papers. Muslims are obliged to pose bareheaded for photographs if they want to obtain an identity card.
"We can't participate in these elections," said Aytan Auseynova, 25 years old and eight months pregnant, before the election authority's announcement. "But we're also citizens of this country."
The dispute sharpened this summer as a deadline passed for all Azerbaijani citizens to trade in their old Soviet passports for new identity papers. Authorities refused to accept photos of women in hijabs, pointing to police regulations dating back to Soviet times that prohibit people from wearing hats in passport photographs.
In addition to the voting restrictions, Auseynova said the ban had a profound impact on her life. "I want to study law, but without a passport that's impossible. Maybe I want to go abroad to study, but how can I without a passport? I have no rights," she said.
She did not know where she would give birth since she cannot check into a hospital without identity papers.
Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, who leads a congregation scattered among small prayer houses after authorities stripped him of his mosque in Baku, said some 4,000 women had appealed for help in their standoff with authorities.
He said the dispute had less to do with religious repression in Azerbaijan, a decidedly secular Turkic-language-speaking country where less than 5 percent of the population are practicing Muslims, he estimated, than with a government fear of any kind of dissent.
"In general, every free person in Azerbaijan is potentially a political prisoner ... because to disagree with the government means you are breaking the law," said Ibrahimoglu, the Baku representative of the Washington-based International Religious Liberty Association.
The Muslim cleric, who claims to have about 3,000 followers, has accused the government of the oil-rich Caspian Sea state of harassing him and his flock because he has criticized Azerbaijani authorities.
Ibrahimoglu spent several months in jail for allegedly helping organize the riots that broke out after the October 2003 presidential elections. He said he could not run in Sunday's election because of his criminal record.
Opposition parties and international rights advocates have alleged that the government will try to rig the vote, in spite of Aliev's decision last week to accept several anti-fraud procedures that had been urged by the international community.