Observers

Local residents were outraged when they saw police in Baku, Azerbaijan violently arrest a man outside his apartment building for failing to respect lockdown restrictions… by taking out his trash. After witnessing the scene from their balconies, angry neighbours started to throw garbage at the police. Police responded by violently arresting several people in the neighbourhood and bragging about it on social media. Our Observer says he wasn’t surprised by the drama in what he calls a “police state".

Lagging behind much of the world, Azerbaijan only began its lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid-19 on June 4. Locals are only required to stay at home at weekends. For those two days, however, restrictions are strictly enforced. Except for a few government employees and the police, no one is allowed to leave their homes on the weekend.

During the first weekend of lockdown on June 7, one man dared to bring his trash out in front of his apartment building in the Yasamal neighborhood in the capital city of Baku. Four police officers happened to be there and they arrested him, even though he was half naked, and put him in their car. Neighbours watched this violent arrest from their balconies and some of them managed to film it. Others started hurling garbage at the police officers. People quickly started sharing videos of the incident which was nicknamed Operation Garbage.

This video showing the original arrest and the reaction of the man’s neighbours was posted on TikTok on June 7.
 

“They wanted to scare us and they succeeded but the only thing they gained is hatred”

Najia (not her real name) lives in the neighbourhood and witnessed the arrest:
 
The man who you see in the videos is my neighbour, Tunjay. When I heard the racket outside, I went out on my balcony and I saw police officers hitting him and pushing him into their car. My neighbours were throwing garbage down at them and shouting insults. “Aren’t you ashamed?” they yelled. “Idiots!” “That’s enough!”

This video, posted on Facebook, shows the incident from another angle.
 
The officers who arrested Tunjay left the neighbourhood quickly, but they came back a few hours later. They immediately went to go and see the representative for the building’s association of homeowners. They asked her to give them the names of all of the people who had thrown garbage.

Then, the officers went from apartment to apartment, writing down the names of residents while insulting them and threatening them. We thought it would end there. But the next day, at 6am, we saw police special forces move into the neighbourhood. There were a lot of them. They arrested eleven people, whose names were on the list that they had drawn up the day before. They dragged them out of their homes, sometimes half naked.

Residents posted these videos online, which show a large police deployment in the neighborhood and several people being arrested.
 
We saw that some of the police were filming this operation and, later, they posted these videos on their social media accounts.

Our neighbourhood is poor and most people here don’t have full-time jobs. Many people were unable to stock up with enough food or hygiene products before lockdown. Police violence is common in our country but in a poor neighborhood like ours it is even worse. We are traumatised by what happened, especially the children. My son is scared to go out today, even though it is calm again.

What happened reflects badly on the government; it’s a disgrace. Police who force their way into apartments, arrested people who were only wearing their underwear, all in front of their children. They wanted to scare us and they succeeded but the only thing they gained is hatred.
 
Azerbaijani police released a statement on June 8: 

“During this operation, eleven people who threw objects at the police were identified and put into detention. An investigation is currently under way to determine the legality of their actions."

Karim Sulleymanli, one of the eleven people detained by police, was released later that day. He told local media that he had been “beaten like an animal” for five hours.
 

“This is the first time that I’ve seen people react like that to the police”

Ilkin Rustamzadeh is an activist and human rights defender from Azerbaijan who lives in Baku. He spent six years in prison after organising a prank flash mob in 2013.
 
When the government announced a total lockdown, a special decree gave the police even more freedom to arrest people who didn’t comply. But the police have been abusing this power and have been using it to arrest both activists and critics.

Police violence is common in Azerbaijan, but this is a significant event. First of all because people reacted to what the police were doing and also because people filmed what was happening to show just how unnecessary the violence was. It’s the first time I’ve seen something like that in our country.


Local media published this series of videos showing the police arresting local people.
 
Our country is a police state and those people humiliated the police by throwing garbage at them. The police wanted to flex their muscles, to show that they hadn’t lost control. They want us to see police officers as a superpower that we citizens can’t beat in order to change to the current regime.

"This video was filmed and posted by Azerbaijani police on June 8 during the reprisal operation”.
 
The police have become absolutely untouchable. Every day, Azerbaijanis are suffering from police violence and we can’t do anything about it. If you complain, if you report, if you sue, you face more violence not justice.

There have been a few protests against police violence but not a single officer has been brought to justice. Only people who have strong connections in the police ranks or the government can avoid police violence.

Human rights organizations have been criticising the culture of police violence in Azerbaijan and the impunity afforded to security forces for years.

In a report on human rights abuses in Azerbaijan published in 2019, the NGO Amnesty International wrote: “The rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly remained suppressed as dissenting voices were silenced and imprisoned, and peaceful protests were violently dispersed by police. Persecution of government critics, including those forcibly returned from abroad, continued. Violation of due process and unfair trials were common; lawyers were harassed. Torture and other ill-treatment remained endemic, its perpetrators enjoying impunity.”

Article by Ershad Alijani