BAKU (Reuters)–Azerbaijan’s parliament–overwhelmingly dominated by supporters of President Haydar Aliyev–on Tuesday passed a law threatening organizers and participants in illegal rallies with three years in prison.
The 125-member Milli Mejlis–an essentially rubber-stamp body with only a handful of opposition lawmakers–passed the bill by 80 to 7 votes providing for the new penalties as well as fines of up to 50 minimum monthly salaries–or about $1,000.
The government has been cracking down on leading opposition figures by threatening them with jail terms for allegedly insulting the honor and dignity of Aliyev–a serious crime in the oil-rich Caspian Sea state of eight million.
Opposition deputy Nizami Guliyev of the Popular Front decried the law. "This law means that the authorities can imprison the opposition just for exercising their constitutional rights," he said.
Opposition parties have held a series of rallies in recent weeks calling for the resignation of 75-year old Aliyev–who was also the country’s Soviet-era Communist boss.
They accuse him of rigging an October poll that gave him another five-year term in office.
The government says at least two recent rallies in which several thousand people took part were attempts at toppling Aliyev. The rallies were violently broken up–in one case by baton-wielding riot police and in another by men in plain clothes.
The opposition Movement for Democracy and its leader–former President Abulfaz Elchibey–has called for a Baku street rally for this Sunday.
It has not received permission to hold the meeting but officials from the Movement for Democracy said that so far there had been no decision to call it off.
Elchibey has been officially charged with falsely accusing Aliyev of helping organize the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its violent battle for autonomy or independence in southeast Turkey in the 1970s.
Earlier this month police confiscated Elchibey’s car because they said window blinds placed in the rear of the vehicle were illegal. They later returned them.