BAKU — Azerbaijan on Friday arrested over 40 people for trying to stage pro-democracy protests in Baku, thwarting the first attempt by activists in the tightly-controlled state to latch on to the Arab revolts.
Footage posted on the Internet showed the young people being firmly led away by the uniformed and plain clothes police into waiting vans as the authorities succeeded in breaking up the small rallies before they properly began.
"In total 43 citizens were detained during the day on March 11," the interior ministry said in a statement on the protests.
It said that 23 were released after they wrote "explanatory notes" at police stations but another 20 were still being held and would later appear in court.
Activists had called for the March 11 "Great People's Day in Azerbaijan" protest against the authorities led by President Ilham Aliyev, who succeeded his father Heydar in 2003, through the Facebook website.
The leader of the opposition Musavat party, Isa Gambar, told AFP that those detained included his son and the leader of the opposition Liberal Democratic party Fuad Aliyev.
"The crackdown on young democracy activists shows that the authorities are scared, they fear mass protests," the leader of the opposition National Front party, Ali Kerimli, told AFP.
Protesters appeared to have tried to hold the rallies at separate locations in the capital -- the May 28 metro station, the train station and the central Nizami street.
Police had earlier been seen massing forces Friday morning at the protest's presumed venues.
Internet footage showed a few dozen protestors on Nizami street briefly managing to muster a rally, shouting "Azadliq" (Freedom in Azeri), before plain clothes police agents intervened.
Local journalists watched events in fluorescent jackets marked "press", in an apparent bid to avoid also being arrested. Radio Free Europe said its photographer was beaten by police during the rally but later received an apology.
The authorities had arrested at least five activists ahead of the planned protest in a crackdown against opposition in the secular majority Muslim state that sparked international concern.
Gambar said Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, Sakhavat Soltanli, Jabar Savalan, Dayanat Babaev, and Rasadat Akhundov had been arrested under "ridiculous accusations of hooliganism," such as speaking loudly on the telephone in a public place.
The EU delegation in Baku on Friday said in a statement it was "concerned" over the "increasing number of reports of arrests of youth activists in the country."
The US ambassador to the former Soviet republic, Matthew Bryza, said he would "continue to monitor closely" the cases.
Amnesty International has called on Azerbaijan to "stop this crackdown immediately and allow activists to organize peaceful protests."
Azerbaijan's Turan news agency reported that Hajiyev, one of the creators of the Facebook page, went on hunger strike and claimed he has been tortured in prison.
The group's page on Facebook, the online social networking site used extensively in the revolt that toppled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, says "we are on the road of democracy and intend to follow this road till the end."
Energy-rich Azerbaijan has been courted by foreign governments as a source of oil and gas supplies, but critics have accused the West of tempering criticism of rights abuses in order to safeguard their economic interests in the Caspian Sea state.
Masters of vast Caspian oil wealth, the Aliyev family has ruled Azerbaijan since 1993 when Ilham Aliyev's father Heydar became president. Heydar Aliyev was succeeded by his son when he died in 2003.
Opposition critics accuse the Aliyev dynasty of rigging elections, crushing dissent, jailing opponents and stifling the media in this country of eight million people.
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