Azeri police beat, detain demonstrators after vote protest rally

Reuters

* Thousands gather to protest disputed vote

* International monitors said vote was marred

* Aliyev won election with 85 percent of votes

By Thomas Grove

BAKU, Oct 12 (Reuters) - Police beat and detaineddemonstrators in the capital of Azerbaijan on Saturday after aprotest against a disputed presidential vote that gave PresidentIlham Aliyev a third consecutive term in the oil-producingformer Soviet republic.

Reuters witnesses saw police kick and thump protesters asscuffles broke out following the rally, which drew thousands inprotest at the election dismissed by international monitors andgovernment critics as unfair.

News agency Interfax-Azerbaijan reported that around 10people were arrested. Reuters was unable to immediately confirmthe number.

Billions of dollars in oil revenues have flowed into thestrategically located South Caucasus country, boosting livingstandards and its international clout, since Aliyev succeededhis father a decade ago. Official results show Aliyev won with85 percent of the vote.

But a gaping divide between rich and poor, and allegationsthat the authorities carried out a pre-election crackdown ondissent that doubled the country's number of politicalprisoners, have attracted criticism at home and abroad.

Around 4,000 people gathered at the sanctioned protest,accusing the government of vote fraud and demanding a new poll.

"Aliyev and his New Azerbaijan Party will answer for theiractions and for trampling on the rights of the Azeri people,"defeated opposition candidate Jamil Hasanly told the crowd.

"(They) are responsible for the condition that Azerbaijan'speople are in," said the 61-year-old former parliamentarian, whomanaged to unite a fractured opposition for the first time in apresidential poll, scoring around 5 percent of the vote.

Hasanly has promised to challenge the results in court.

Protesters alleged dozens of cases of ballot stuffing,multiple voting and police interference.

Natavan Salimzade, a college teacher, said she wasinstructed to vote for Aliyev or lose her job and that she wasto take a picture of her marked ballot to prove that she hadfollowed instructions.

She said she disobeyed and voted for Hasanly.

"Of course I'll get fired now, somehow, one way or another.I'll be implicated in some scandal," she said at the protest ina soccer stadium far from the designer boutiques and five-starhotels that have come to symbolise the influx of oil revenuesenjoyed by the country's elite.

"But I'm not afraid for myself anymore. I'm only worriedabout my children," she said, crying.

International monitors from the Organisation for Securityand Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said the vote was marred by a"restrictive media environment" and allegations of intimidationof candidates and voters.

The OSCE monitors said they reported clear indications ofballot-stuffing at 37 polling stations, and said the countingwas assessed negatively at an unprecedented 58 per cent ofstations observed.

The election commission said no electoral violations werereported. The presidential office said the poll was open andtransparent and called the OSCE statement prejudiced,politicised and of "the theatre of the absurd".

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