Opposition parties mustered their biggest rally in years on Saturday, bringing about 10,000 protesters into the streets of the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, to call for free elections after authorities backed down and gave them permission to hold a demonstration.
Just two weeks ago, police had beat back opposition protesters who tried to hold a rally in Baku despite an official ban, and dozens were arrested. In October 2003, one person was killed and nearly 200 were injured in clashes between police and demonstrators who were protesting allegations of vote-rigging in that month's presidential election in which President Ilham Aliev replaced his late father, the long-reigning Geidar Aliev.
The government last year announced restrictions on opposition rallies, citing the possibility of violence similar to the 2003 riots -- and further roiling relations with the opposition.
This time, about 400 police in full riot gear stood guard around a central square where protesters gathered, but they didn't intervene, and the rally ended peacefully.
Supporters of several opposition parties marched in Baku on Saturday, chanting "Freedom!" and "Free Elections!" They held placards with slogans like "Down with the robber government!" and carried pictures of President Bush with the words: "We want freedom!"
The rally was intended to draw attention to the opposition's push for election law reforms and access to state-controlled television. The opposition parties have demanded changes to prevent fraud in November's parliamentary vote, for which three of the major parties have agreed to unite in a fight for political change.
"Not only the opposition, but all people need democratic changes," Ali Kerimli, the leader of the People's Front of Azerbaijan, said at the rally. "We demand free elections, and if the conditions for free elections are not created, every village, every bloc will demand the government's resignation."
Panakh Huseinli, one of the opposition leaders who spoke at Saturday's rally, said that Aliev's government wouldn't allow free elections.
"The Aliev regime will never allow free elections, and it will mean its end," Huseinli said. "The revolution is inevitable."
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