Azerbaijani Opposition Rallies Ahead Of Snap Presidential Election

Opposition activists in Azerbaijan are rallying in the capital of the former Soviet republic demanding the release of individuals considered by international rights groups to be political prisoners.

The March 31 demonstration in Baku, organized by Azerbaijan's two main opposition parties with permission from city authorities, is being held less than two weeks before a snap presidential election that is set to hand longtime President Ilham Aliyev a new seven-year term.

The opposition parties behind the rally -- Musavat and the National Council of Democratic Forces -- both announced that they would not take part in the election after Aliyev last month issued a decree bringing forward the date of the election to April 11 from the original date of October 17.

Demonstrators carried placards showing photographs of people rights activists say have been imprisoned in politically motivated cases. They also called for free elections and a crackdown on corruption.

Aliyev has been president of the oil-producing South Caucasus country of nearly 10 million people since shortly before the death of his long-ruling father, Heydar Aliyev, in 2003.

Critics of Aliyev and his government say Azerbaijani authorities frequently seek to silence dissent by jailing reporters, human rights activists, and civil-society advocates on trumped-up charges.

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.

Aliyev and senior Azerbaijani officials have repeatedly brushed off the accusations of corruption and say there are no political prisoners in the country.