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Heavy-handed response to Baku protests

By Max Tucker, Amnesty International's campaigner for South Caucasus and Central Asia, reporting from Baku

Around 30 people were arrested in Baku today when part of a virtual protest against the government in Azerbaijan became reality.

Small groups of people gathered spontaneously in different areas of central Baku, responding to an 11 March Facebook event that over 4,100 people signed up to.

Protesters on the streets told us that they were calling for freedom and an end to government corruption and oppression.

Large numbers of uniformed police were visible throughout Baku all day, and they reacted swiftly and heavy-handedly the moment protesters started chanting. Several young women shouting "Azadliq" (liberty) were immediately grabbed by officers and bundled into police vans. One girl managed to escape temporarily, only to be cornered by about 20 policemen, forced to the floor and dragged to a police vehicle.

A group of older, male protesters then started chanting "free Eynulla" - a reference to imprisoned journalist Eynulla Fatullayev. Police appeared to tolerate this until younger protesters joined in with "free Bakhtiyar", at which point they broke up the protest and arrested at least three men.

Bakhtiyar Hajiyev is a youth activist and the only co-founder of the 11 March Facebook event living in Azerbaijan. He was taken into custody on 4 March, accused of violating a conditional release on charges of evading military service.

At a court hearing later the same day he passed a letter to his lawyer in which he said while in custody he had been tortured and threatened with rape by a senior police official.

Two journalists were injured while covering the events, police kicked a reporter from Turan news agency in the stomach when he was knocked to the ground, and a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalist was scratched in the face as police tried to disperse the protest.

Twelve of the people arrested have already been released, but 15 appeared in front of a court this evening. Four youth activists were detained ahead of the protests.

Local journalists say that additional troops have been stationed in key military buildings around the city.

Tomorrow Musavat, one of the opposition parties, will be holding a protest.

One activist told us: "This is just the beginning, there will be more such actions. We want an end to corruption, we want to be free, we want our future."