Azerbaijan's president has addressed the situation in the village of Soyudlu, in the western Gadabay District, which has been locked down since an environmental protest there on June 20.
Ilham Aliyev pledged to act on the ecological hazards facing the villagers and acknowledged their right to protest, but he also strongly backed the law enforcement officers who cracked down violently on the demonstration.
He made the remark while chairing a cabinet meeting on July 11 devoted chiefly to the performance of the economy in the first half of the year.
Soyudlu entered the national spotlight with a protest against the planned construction of a second pond to house waste from the nearby Gadabay (Gadabek) gold mine. Villagers say an existing pond already releases cyanide and other toxic chemicals into the ground, causing health problems, including cancer, and damaging crops. After several days of protest, the demonstrators were dispersed violently by police and the village has been under tight police control ever since.
Aliyev called the environmental situation in Soyudlu "utterly unacceptable". He blamed the Ecology Ministry and Anglo Asian Mining, the British company that operates the mine.
"I believe that the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources was negligent at minimum. It showed a lack of oversight and acted as a passive observer, resulting in a foreign investor contaminating our nature. People raised their legitimate voices of protest, but did anyone listen to them? No! One day, two days, three days, five days had passed. What was the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources thinking? Wasn't it aware that there was such a problem? It was either aware but paid no heed to it or it was oblivious. Both are unacceptable," Aliyev said.
On June 26, Reza Vaziri, President and Chief Executive of Anglo Asian Mining, denied any allegations of environmental hazard in remarks to RFE/RL's Azerbaijani service. "We conduct our mining activities based on the highest international standards," he claimed. "Representatives of the Ministry of Ecology were there. They checked and said that no violations were committed."
President Aliyev raised the specter of legal action against the British company.
"Of course, they [Anglo Asian Mining] didn't come here for charity but to earn money. But this does not mean our nature should be destroyed along the way. It does not mean people's pastures and grazing areas should be occupied. It does not mean they should build a second wastewater lake without obtaining permission from anyone. Who gave them permission?" Aliyev continued. "It seems they either colluded with the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources or did it alone. So, it should be thoroughly investigated. All instructions have been given to the prosecutor's office and other relevant agencies."
Anglo Asian Mining hasn't responded to Eurasianet's email inquiry regarding the president's accusation at the time of publication.
A commission to monitor and evaluate the situation in Soyudlu was created on June 21, a day after the protest. Its findings have yet to be announced.
Meanwhile, movement in and out of Soyudlu is strictly controlled by police. Only residents are allowed entry. Some villagers have told independent news outlets by phone that there is heavy police presence inside Soyudlu as well.
The president threw his support behind the police, who he said were provoked into their forceful response.
"Citizens should also show decency and manners, abide by the law, and refrain from throwing objects at the police. Throwing stones at the police is not a good look for anyone. This is one thing. Secondly, it is a crime. If the Azerbaijani police show tolerance, it does not mean that people can throw stones at the police. This is absolutely unacceptable. … I am saying to everyone that we are not going to play around with anyone's whims here, and if we believe that it is necessary, we will punish those involved so that they come to regret it."
There was widespread outrage over the police response to the protest, in particular because of footage that circulated of officers spraying chemical irritant directly into the faces of older female protesters.