BAKU (AFP)–Some 10,000 anti-government protestors rallied in the capital of Azerbaijan calling for regime change in the former Soviet republic on Saturday.
In the first opposition rally not to have been crushed by police since 2003 presidential polls ended in violence–protestors carried signs with the phrase "we want freedom" superimposed onto portraits of President George W. Bush.
Police officials–who mobilized hundreds of riot police to encircle the rally–told state-owned media that less than 3,000 people attended the protest–but an AFP correspondent estimated the turnout at 10,000.
In a flashback to the peaceful revolt that ousted an entrenched regime in Ukraine last year–members of the Yeni Fikir youth movement wore orange shirts and headbands and directed shouts of "step down" at the country’s leadership.
"We want a normal government–we want this regime to give up power," said Ruslan Bashirli–the leader of Yeni Fikir–one of the youth protest groups that have mushroomed in Azerbaijan ahead of a parliamentary election scheduled for November.
Bashirli said the group would push for a "peaceful–velvet revolution" during the elections.
The government of President Ilham Aliyev–who inherited the top post from his father Heydar Aliyev in contested 2003 elections–has cracked down on the opposition with police routinely beating and imprisoning protestors.
"If the elections are not free–prepare to see every village and every street demand Aliyev’s ouster," Ali Kerimli–leader of the opposition Popular Front of Azerbaijan party–told the rally.
A block of opposition parties participating in the protest issued a resolution demanding fair treatment for their candidates in the coming elections and called for the authorities to release the relative of a prominent exiled politician allegedly taken into custody on Friday.
The opposition said Almaz Guliyeva–a British citizen and the niece of Azerbaijan’s ex-parliamentary speaker Rasul Guliyev–had to be hospitalized with heart trouble after a pistol was planted on her when she arrived in Baku on a flight from London.
No official comment regarding Guliyeva was available on Saturday.
In May–the government launched a sweeping crackdown ahead of the opening of a major US-backed oil pipeline–arresting some 75 people and beating scores at a banned anti government rally–including one journalist.
The crackdown continued into this week when two activists from the youth protest movement Yokh were arrested and allegedly dragged by their hair to a police station after handing out leaflets to high school graduates.
The authorities allowed Saturday’s rally to take place after last month’s crackdown provoked Western outcry with the United States and the European Union saying it violated citizens’ rights to freely assemble.
Hundreds of people were arrested in protests that turned into riots during the presidential elections in 2003 in which two people died.
Many were only amnestied after Europe’s top human rights body–the Council of Europe–stepped up pressure on the government.
The organization has described the coming elections as a crossroads where "we may become witnesses either to fair and free elections or a bloody confrontation between thousands."