Human Rights Watch (HRW) is calling on Azerbaijan to conduct a "prompt, impartial, and thorough" investigation into the violent dispersal of a peaceful protest by police in Baku earlier this week, and the "horrific" beating of an opposition politician and vocal government critic while in detention.
"Azerbaijani authorities have yet again demonstrated brazen contempt for people's right to hold peaceful protests and used violence to quash dissent," Giorgi Gogia, associate Europe and Central Asia director at the New York-based human rights watchdog, said in a statement on December 3, two days after police detained dozens of protesters gathered in central Baku.
In a tweet on December 2, the U.S. Embassy in Baku expressed deep concern about the violence against the protesters, and said it supported "peaceful assembly and the freedom of expression, as enshrined in Azerbaijan’s constitution."
Among those detained during the December 1 rally was a leading member of the opposition Musavat Party, Tofiq Yaqublu, who sustained multiple injuries while in police custody.
Yaqublu, 60, said police beat him while demanding that he say on camera that he would stop criticizing Azerbaijan's leadership.
"Yaqublu's horrific mistreatment was an attack on both an individual and the right to peaceful assembly," Gogia said. "Given Azerbaijan's poor record of addressing police abuses, the authorities need to ensure an effective, impartial investigation and hold to account those responsible."
The Azerbaijani government has been widely accused of human rights abuses, including torture and arbitrary detention.
The participants at the December 1 rally demanded the release of opposition activist Saleh Rustamli, who is serving a seven-year prison sentence on what HRW called "spurious" money-laundering charges.
Rustamli has been on a hunger strike since November 6, after parliament adopted an amnesty bill that is expected to release 3,000 prisoners but did not apply to his case.
Police cordoned off areas of Baku's center ahead of the protest, but several dozen protesters managed to make their way to the city center, chanting "Free Saleh Rustamli."
Police and security officials in civilian clothes immediately intervened and "forcibly restrained protesters, twisting their arms, and violently dragging them," including Yaqublu, to police vehicles, HRW said.
About 40 demonstrators were rounded up, the group said, adding that most of them were released shortly thereafter in the outskirts of the capital.
At least five were sentenced by courts to up to 30 days of administrative detention.
Appearing in a video after his release, Yaqublu was badly bruised and said he was nearly suffocated by officers.
Yaqublu told RFE/RL he had officially filed a complaint at the Prosecutor-General's Office.
The Interior Ministry has denied that police beat the opposition politician or subjected him to any pressure, but said that Yaqublu's allegations will be investigated.
Opponents of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, Western countries, and international human rights groups say his government has persistently persecuted critics, political foes, independent media outlets, and civic activists.
Aliyev, who has ruled the country of almost 10 million people since shortly before the death of his father and predecessor, Heydar Aliyev, in 2003, has shrugged off the criticism.