Police in Azerbaijan have arrested at least three opposition party leaders and rounded up over 100 activists before they could take part in a protest against the results of recent parliamentary elections.
The leader of the REAL party, Ilgar Mamedly, the leader of the Musavat Party, Arif Gajily, and the head of the D18 opposition movement, Ruslan Izzetly, were detained before the protest was scheduled to start in the capital Baku on Sunday.
Police surrounded the building of the Central Election Commission (CEC), where the protest had been due to start from, and put on a bus anyone arriving to take part.
Some protesters chanted slogans and held posters reading, “Abolish election results!” and “We demand free elections!”
Results from the February 9 vote showed the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan (New Azerbaijan) Party won 72 out of 125 seats in the single-chamber parliament. Nearly all other seats went to small parties and independents loyal to President Ilham Aliyev.
The next day, observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe issued a joint statement censuring the outcome. The claimed the election had been marred by numerous irregularities, raising serious doubts on its integrity.
Opposition parties have also claimed the election was “totally falsified,” with the Musavat opposition party demanding that the result of the vote be annulled and fresh polls be held.
Aliyev had previously said his government had taken all necessary measures to ensure fair and transparent elections that comply with Azerbaijan’s laws and international standards.
He called the election nine months before the vote was formally due, with officials from Yeni Azerbaijan Party arguing that the move was “to support the president’s policy on reforms and personnel changes.”
The opposition blames the president for public discontent over the economic slowdown and accuses him of attempting to improve his government’s image by replacing old discredited elites with younger candidates.
Aliyev has been at the helm of the ex-Soviet state since he was first elected in 2003 after the death of his father, Heydar, who had held power for a decade.
He was re-elected in 2008 and 2013 in polls that were denounced by opposition parties as rigged.
Azerbaijan under Aliyev is well-known for its lack of tolerance for dissent and its tough way of dealing with political opposition.
The West has courted Azerbaijan because of its role as an alternative to Russia in supplying oil and gas to Europe. But various international rights groups have accused Aliyev of muzzling dissent and jailing opponents, charges Baku denies.