Azeri Vote Boycott Threatened

BAKU, Azerbaijan -- Azerbaijan's most prominent opposition leader has threatened to boycott next year's presidential election unless the government permits television coverage of anti-government forces and lets them hold rallies.

Ali Kerimli, leader of the Azeri Popular Front, said in an interview late Sunday that President Ilham Aliyev had destroyed basic freedoms since succeeding his father at the helm of the country in 2003.

"Television doesn't show the opposition at all now," he said. "Before they used to show us and criticize us but now they have forbidden all channels from covering us."

Kerimli, 42, gave the interview in a borrowed house overlooking a construction site -- a necessary measure, he said, because his own offices had been confiscated, not long after the government failed to renew his passport.

"No political activity is possible outside the capital," he said. Nobody is allowed to organize meetings there."

Kerimli's opposition bloc won nine seats out of 125 seats in the last parliamentary elections in 2005, which were tarnished by allegations of fraud.

Fearing a rigged vote in October next year when Aliyev faces re-election, Kerimli said his opposition group would only take part if three conditions were met -- changes in the officials supervising elections, television coverage of the opposition, and the right to hold rallies.

"But if conditions next year continue as they are now, then we will boycott the election," he said.

A senior member of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party, Eldar Ibrahimov, said conditions for opposition parties were no different from those for pro-government groups. "This [threat to boycott] is just an excuse ... because they know very well they are going to lose the presidential election," he said. "That is because the president ... has influence in the country and everyone can see the work he has done."

The West has criticized Azerbaijan's human rights record, but Kerimli said complaints had been muted by their desire to gain access to Azeri oil and gas.