Azerbaijan police break up protest against abuse in army

BAKU (Reuters) - Police in Azerbaijan arrested dozens of protesters who rallied against violence in the military on Sunday, firing water cannon and rubber bullets to disperse crowds.

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The protest was one of a series triggered by the death of a conscript, Jeyhun Gubadov, on January 7 at a military barracks. His death added to a string of other non-combat deaths under murky circumstances in the military in recent years.

The Defence Ministry said initially Gubadov had died of a heart attack, but his family believed he was beaten to death and four soldiers were arrested after an investigation was opened.

About 500 people, mostly young opposition activists, gathered in the capital Baku shouting “No to deaths in the army”, some holding portraits of dead soldiers.

Baton-wielding police were swift to crack down on the unsanctioned demonstration. Within minutes they had fired smoke bombs into the crowd and begun detaining protesters.

“I can’t be indifferent to the fact that young soldiers die in our army almost every week,” said a protester named Gulshan, who held up three photographs of dead soldiers.

Western governments and human rights groups accuse Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, who succeeded his father in 2003, of rigging elections and of clamping down on dissent. Protests are often swiftly broken up by security forces.

Buoyed by oil wealth, Azerbaijan has increased military spending to demonstrate its military power to its neighbor and arch foe Armenia. Two countries are locked in a dispute over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

But experts say the army is in desperate need of reforms to combat low moral and the chronic bullying of conscripts by their superiors.

Some 77 Azeri soldiers died last year in non-combat related deaths, including suicides and shootings, according to local watchdog group, the “Doctrine” Journalists’ Military Research Centre.

Writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Angus MacSwan