Azerbaijani opposition plans rally in Baku in spite of ban

Police detained several protesters who tried Saturday to reach the planned site of an anti-government rally that Azerbaijani authorities had banned.

Security was tight in the capital, Baku, after opposition leaders said they would hold the rally in the city center despite the official ban. Police and security officers were out in force, and they were seen detaining at least a dozen people in a crowd of more than 100 who tried to enter the area where the protest was to be held. Detainees were put into vans or minibuses.

Other protesters were making their way to the site from different directions, but streets leading to the area were blocked off by police.

Azerbaijan's chief prosecutor said Friday, citing security concerns, that the parties would be forbidden from holding the protest because it was to take place just four days before a ceremony marking the opening of Azerbaijan's portion of a U.S.-backed oil pipeline, which is to be attended by four foreign leaders.

Three major opposition parties had called for the rally, and opposition leaders vowed Friday to go ahead with it despite the prohibition.

Opposition leaders want to use the rally in the capital to call for free and fair elections and freedom of speech. They said Friday that 30 of their activists had been detained over the previous two days on misdemeanor charges, and some have been sentenced to between five and 15 days in prison, in what they called an attempt to thwart their plans.

The U.S.-based Freedom House rights advocacy group urged Azerbaijan on the eve of the rally to release the detainees immediately and respect the right to freedom of assembly.

"It is time for the Azerbaijani government to demonstrate its commitment to democratic reform with genuine actions," Freedom House said in a statement.

Tension between the government and the opposition in tightly controlled, oil-rich Azerbaijan has increased since an October 2003 election in which Ilham Aliev replaced his now-dead father, longtime leader Geidar Aliev, as president in a vote the opposition said was marred by fraud. A parliamentary vote is scheduled for November.

Associated Press

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