Azerbaijani village still under lockdown after protest, arrests continue


The crackdown on environmental protesters in a western Azerbaijani village continues to unfold. Movement in and out of Soyudlu has been restricted by local police for over two weeks, and both local residents and Baku-based activists showing solidarity have been arrested.

The residents of Soyudlu, a village in Azerbaijan's western Gadabay district, grabbed the public's attention on June 20 with their protest against the planned construction of an artificial lake meant to hold waste from the nearby British-operated Gadabay gold mine (also known as Gedabek). The violent police response to the demonstration, especially the use of chemical irritants directly in the faces of elderly female protestors, sparked outrage locally.

Police have held the village under tight control ever since. And new reports allege they are continuing to intimidate local residents.

One resident told the independent outlet Abzas Media that police have been summoning anyone they deem suspicious to appear at the police station and come after those who do not show up. "The police take their phones and investigate their contacts," the person said on condition of anonymity.

According to an independent working group studying the Soyudlu case, 11 residents of the village were arrested. Eight of them were placed in administrative detention, while the other three face drug charges.

Lawyer Samad Rahimli, a member of the working group, told Abzas Media that none of those detained in Soyudlu are receiving legal counsel. "The families aren't interested in legal support. When we call them, they say their phones are being listened to and they are afraid to talk," he said.

The arrests aren't limited to Soyudlu. On July 4, former member of parliament from Gadabay and businessman Nazim Baydamirli was detained in Baku by the Department for the Fight Against Organized Crime under the Interior Ministry, his lawyer Agil Layic reported. Baydamirli told Layic that he was being detained on suspicion of having organized the Soyudlu protest.

The Interior Ministry stated that the former MP was detained in response to a complaint by a citizen who alleged that Baydamirli was blackmailing him with a sex tape.

On July 5, a Baku court placed Baydamirli in 4-month pre-trial detention on charges of blackmail.

But many doubt the official reason for his arrest and attribute it instead to his record of criticizing the government and his support for the Soyudlu protest.

Before his arrest, Baydamirli had told VoA's Azerbaijani service that the authorities had for years failed to communicate properly with Soyudlu residents about their public health and environmental concerns.

"They used their constitutional right to protest. By imposing measures to limit the spread of information about the protests, they [authorities] let the wider society know about it and angered them with their behavior," Baydamirli said on June 26.

Villagers have for years complained that the Gadabay gold mine leeches cyanide and other forms of toxic waste into an existing nearby lake, causing health problems among locals, including cancer, as well as damaging crops. The June protest was triggered by plans to build a second reservoir for holding waste which locals contend would only exacerbate the problem.

Some Baku-based activists showing solidarity with the Soyudlu protestors have also been detained. Political activist Giyas Ibrahim was arrested on June 22 and placed in custody for a month on charges of defying police orders. Two more days were later added to his sentence for "publishing prohibited information online." According to his lawyer, Ibrahim believes that the real reason for his arrest was his social media posts supporting the Soyudlu protestors. He also went on hunger strike for four days demanding his own release and that of all others detained over the Soyudlu events.

On the same day, another activist and board member of the opposition NIDA Youth Movement, Elmir Abbasov, was arrested for 20 days for disobeying police. NIDA also claims that Abbasov was targeted because of a Facebook post.

"Today's events in Gadabay once again proved to us that the meaning of the word 'police' in Azerbaijan is 'immoral person'," Abbasov wrote on June 20. "Once again, we have been convinced that there are no good police officers, it's just that there are some police officers who have not yet received orders to crush you."

Heydar Isayev is a journalist from Baku.