(Bloomberg) -- The political fallout of rare anti-government demonstrations is spreading in Azerbaijan, with the European Union issuing a warning and an opposition leader saying he was beaten up by riot police following his arrest on Saturday.
An unathorized rally by hundreds of protesters demanding freedom of assembly, which has effectively been denied since the start of 2019, ended in the worst violence the Azeri capital has seen in years. Ali Karimli, leader of the Popular Front of Azerbaijan Party, was detained with scores of his supporters as they defied a ban to demonstrate in central Baku.
“Six to seven police officers handcuffed me, throwing me onto the floor and kicking me,” Karimli said in a video statement on his Facebook page. With bruises visible on his head, face and neck, Karimli said he was beaten so severely that at some point he lost consciousness.
While Azerbaijan ranks among the world’s most corrupt and repressive governments, arrests or torture of leaders of opposition parties are rare in the energy-rich former Soviet republic.
With parliamentary elections looming next year, demonstrators gathered on Saturday despite a heavy security presence, demanding the resignation of the country’s longtime President Ilham Aliyev. Karimli and other leaders of the secular opposition are using social media to galvanize public support for a peaceful shift to democracy.
Authorities had offered demonstrators a remote location on the outskirts of the city to conduct the rally.
The EU’s executive arm called for an investigation into reports of excessive and unprovoked force, urging the Azeri government to release the detained opposition protesters.
“Freedom of assembly is a fundamental human right and we expect Azerbaijan to ensure that it can be fully exercised, in line with the country’s international obligations,” European Commission spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said in a statement.
After being detained and dragged into a police car, Karimli was eventually taken to hospital where he received stitches to his forehead and his body was screened for injuries. He was later released home.
The Interior Ministry’s press service didn’t answer calls for comment. Sahlab Bagirov, commander of the riot police, on Saturday rejected claims police used excessive force.
In a statement late Saturday, the Interior Ministry said 60 people were detained for attending the demonstration. Of those, 42 were “warned” and released. The remaining 18 will stand trial.
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Torrey Clark at firstname.lastname@example.org, Paul Abelsky, Angela Cullen
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