Images of gratuitous police violence against older female demonstrators have caused outrage and drawn attention to an environmental protest in rural western Azerbaijan.
The demonstration was held in the village of Soyudlu, in Gadabay District, on June 20. Locals gathered in the village center and later moved towards the local police station in protest against the planned construction of an artificial lake meant to hold waste from the nearby Gadabay gold mine.
"Don't poison us" and "the Kura river is getting poisoned", read some of the signs brandished by the protesters until they were dispersed by riot police using tear gas and rubber bullets.
One video of the crackdown that circulated widely clearly showed riot police spraying a chemical irritant directly into the faces of several older female protesters.
After the incident, the Interior Ministry said the protesters had "deliberately disobeyed the lawful demands of the police and injured several workers with stones and blunt objects, and also tried to resist the police officers," thus justifying the use of force.
Ministry representative Elshad Haciyev in his initial remarks to journalists said the police response had been "adequate" but acknowledged the following day that one of the police officers had "got caught up in his emotions and made a serious mistake towards a woman."
According to eyewitnesses, at least seven people were detained and placed in detention for 20 days, and one was fined 1500 manats (about $880). One of the villagers said other detainees were beaten with a truncheon. The Interior Ministry is not releasing information about the number of detainees.
Villagers say the operation of the Gadabay gold mine releases cyanide and other forms of toxic waste into an existing nearby lake, causing health problems among locals, including cancer, as well as damaging crops. They fear the construction of a second reservoir for holding waste will only exacerbate the problem.
"We don't want our children to grow up sick," one village resident told journalists.
Eco-activist Cavid Qara told Radio Liberty that the construction of such a pond would require sophisticated engineering: "Even a tiny leak could poison the water in that region. It would affect animal life, and people [would be affected] if they use that water for drinking or irrigation." He added that waiting for the Ecology Ministry's assessments is pointless, as they do not possess the necessary facilities to do a proper study.
Prime Minister Ali Asadov appointed a special commission to investigate and assess the current situation with the lake and the concerns of the villagers. Mukhtar Babayev, minister of ecology and natural resources, was appointed chair of the commission. Babayev and other commission members met with locals on June 22.
The Gadabay gold mine (also referred to as Gedabek) is operated by Anglo Asian Mining, a British company which is the leading gold and copper producer in Azerbaijan. Gold is among the country's biggest exports, bringing in $185 million to the state budget in 2022 and $202 million in 2021. The main gold mines are Gadabay and Dashkasan, both located in the western part of the country.
At present, police are controlling all movement in and out of the village. Only those presenting proof of residence in Soyudlu are allowed in.
In covering the incident, government-affiliated media criticize the protesters for holding an "unsanctioned action" and showing "disrespect" toward police officers.
But on social media, outrage abounds over the police brutality.
"Everyone who drags a citizen down to the ground, puts tears on his face, and everyone who gives this order should be punished," journalist Habib Muntazir wrote in a popular post on Facebook on June 20.