BAKU, Azerbaijan – Police in Azerbaijan arrested dozens of protesters who rallied Saturday for democratic reforms in the authoritarian republic.
Authorities had banned demonstrations in the capital Baku, sealing off central streets and public squares and detaining several organizers in the days leading up to the rally.
But activists nevertheless held several gatherings around the city. At the largest, which featured several hundred people, the protesters unfurled anti-government banners and cried "We want freedom!" in English. Police detained them almost instantly. An Associated Press reporter witnessed the arrests and saw dozens more detained elsewhere in the city.
The head of the opposition party Musavat, Isa Qambar, told the AP that 200 people were detained. The number couldn't be immediately verified with police.
"In Azerbaijan, fundamental changes are inevitable, and the people intend to participate in them," Qambar said.
Energy-rich Azerbaijan has been ruled since 2003 by authoritarian President Ilham Aliyev, and he looks set to continue indefinitely after a referendum he pushed through in 2008 abolished presidential terms, drawing wrath from pro-democracy activists.
Saturday's clashes came about after Aliyev's opponents rejected the authorities' proposal of conducting their rally in a stadium in a village outside Baku.
On Friday, Human Rights Watch criticized the pre-emptive arrests of 10 opposition activists earlier this week and called for their immediate release.
"It is clear that the authorities are determined to crush any attempts by opposition activists to gather peacefully," said Rachel Denber, acting director of the watchdog's Europe and Central Asia Division.