BAKU (Reuters) - Azerbaijan security forces detained 43 people on Friday after anti-government activists used social media to call for street protests in the oil-producing Muslim state, inspired by the Arab uprisings.
Azerbaijan, an energy supplier to Europe and a transit route for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, has been ruled by one family for nearly two decades since Soviet veteran Heydar Aliyev came to power in 1993. He was succeeded by his son Ilham in 2003.
“Today 43 people were arrested, 23 of which were released after questioning,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement, adding that others faced charges of violating public order and defying police.
A Reuters reporter saw riot troops and plainclothes police seize young activists one by one and push them into buses near a major university in the center of Baku, capital of the authoritarian former Soviet republic.
One of the opposition activists, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters by telephone that some of the activists were wearing red t-shirts, the main color of their protest, which involved small groups of young people shouting anti-government rhetoric.
Activists inspired by the overthrow of autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt by pro-democracy protests vowed to stage more demonstrations as they were being taken away by police outside Baku’s Oil Academy.
“We will try to hold other protests in the future,” one young man told reporters before police bundled him into a bus.
The opposition Musavat Party said it would hold a rally — which was not approved by authorities — in Baku on Saturday.
The European Union swiftly condemned the detentions.
The EU delegation in Baku said in a statement it “encouraged Azerbaijan to maintain an open dialogue with members of civil society organisations expressing views and opinions in a peaceful manner... (and) to ensure due process in all recent cases of arrest of youth activists.”
The opposition activist said he and others might hold more protests but could not say when.
The Human Rights House, a partner of the international human rights network and operational in Azerbaijan since 2007, said it was ordered by the Justice Ministry to cease current activities unless agreed upon with authorities.
“The Human Rights House believes this measure is part of the escalated repression of the civil society in the last few weeks in connection with calls for pro-democracy demonstrations in March,” the organization said in a statement.
Six other activists have been detained on various charges in the Caspian Sea nation since early February, when the “Great People’s Day” campaign was launched on Facebook and Twitter.
Inspired by a wave of protests across North Africa and the Middle East, activists sent out more than 35,000 invitations for people to support the anti-government group on Facebook and more than 3,000 clicked the “I’m attending” button.
Authorities stepped up security outside the main universities as well as metro stations in Baku on Friday. Students at Baku universities were warned they would be expelled if they missed classes.
Azerbaijan’s secular government has argued that tough policing is necessary to protect the nation from Islamic extremists. There have been isolated detentions of members of radical Islamist groups.
Some analysts see the risk of spillover from an Islamist insurgency in Russia’s mainly Muslim North Caucasus, particularly Dagestan which borders Azerbaijan.
Human rights groups say Aliyev’s government tolerates little dissent and condemned the latest detentions. Officials denied the arrests were politically motivated.
The country of 9 million people is bordered to the West by Turkey, where a secular state is accommodating growing conservative religious influence, to the south by the Islamic Republic of Iran, and to the north by Russia’s Dagestan.
To many Azeris rooted in secularism, particularly in the booming capital, a strong Islam runs contrary to their vision of a modernizing Azerbaijan moving closer to Europe.
Police have cracked down on street protests by political opponents in the past decade over elections criticized by Western governments and dismissed by critics as rigged.
Azerbaijan released two opposition bloggers last year before the end of their prison terms after the cases were condemned by the West as a blow to free speech in the country. The editor of opposition newspaper ‘Real Azerbaijan’ is still in jail, despite a European Court of Human Rights ruling in April last year that said his imprisonment was illegal. (Additional reporting and writing by Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi; editing by)