Hundreds of people have attended an opposition-organized anticorruption rally in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku.
The protest Saturday was organized by the National Council of Democratic Forces (NCDF) — an umbrella group of Azerbaijani opposition forces, under the slogan “No To Robbery.”
Activists from the Popular Front Party, People’s Democratic Party, National Statehood Party, Musavat Party youth organization, Muslim Union, and NIDA movement attended the rally.
The rally held in the Mehsul stadium in Baku’s Yasamal district was approved by the city authorities. Police said the protest was attended by an estimated 1,000 people, although opposition activists say the number was higher.
Protesters chanted slogans like “End to corruption” and “Freedom for political prisoners!”
Police cordoned off the area around the stadium as part of increased security measures.
No incidents were reported, and the rally ended peacefully, police said.
The opposition, as well as Western governments and international human rights groups, have criticized Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s government for persistently persecuting independent media outlets, journalists, and opposition politicians and activists.
Aliyev, who has ruled the oil-rich South Caucasus country of nearly 10 million people since shortly before his father’s death in 2003, has shrugged off the criticism, and the authorities deny that there are political prisoners in the country.
Recent international corruption investigations have also found that Aliyev’s family makes frequent use of offshore companies to hide its wealth and mask the ways it gains shares in Azerbaijan’s most lucrative businesses.
During the rally, Ali Karimli, the leader of the Popular Front Party, which is part of the NCDF, denounced government corruption. He said the government doesn’t use oil revenues effeciently, and high-level corruption deprives Azerbaijanis from benefiting from oil billions.
Human rights activist Oktay Gulaliyev told the rally that freedom of speech was under threat in the country.
“Access to independent, critical Internet sites has been blocked,” Gulaliyev said. “There are more than 160 [political] prisoners in the country, and up to 20 of them are journalists and bloggers.”
The rally came after the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) earlier this month voiced concerns over Azerbaijan’s “unprecedented crackdown on human rights” as well as checks and balances, and the functioning of justice in the country.
PACE on October 11 passed a resolution blasting “the reported prosecution and detention of leaders of NGOs, human rights defenders, political activists, journalists, and bloggers,” although some of them were released last year.
PACE cited cases of “torture and inhuman or degrading treatment during arrest, in police custody, and in prisons, and the lack of effective investigations, violations of the right to a fair trial, and violations of the right to freedom of expression, association, and assembly.”
The resolution also called on Azerbaijani authorities to “begin real and meaningful reforms” to remove the obstacles to the work of journalists and rights defenders.