The possible American origins of a brutal repression tool
Hours before Azerbaijani activists gathered in Baku last weekend for an unsanctioned protest against military violence, blogger Habib Muntezir sent out a word of warning: "Sonic weapons with a horrible acoustic effect may be used to disperse the protests. Use cotton or earplugs to protect your ears."
In the end, riot police did not resort to using the LRAD, or Long-Range Acoustic Device, which can blast a pain-inducing 150-decibel beam of sound to deter unruly crowds.
But the presence of the LRAD, a U.S.-manufactured device that is gaining international popularity as a crowd-control tool, still provoked a wave of outrage among the March 10 protesters, who say the West should not be helping to stock the Baku regime's arsenal.
"Hopefully, this is not a part of U.S. assistance to Azerbaijan," one activist wrote on Facebook in the wake of the protests, which ended with police using tear gas and water cannons -- both manufactured in Israel -- to forcibly break up the crowd.
Such clashes are expected to grow as antigovernment sentiment mounts ahead of October elections in which the country's autocratic leader, Ilham Aliyev, is expected to run for a controversial third term as president.
Aliyev has been widely criticized in the West for overseeing a deeply corrupt, oil-fed regime that has systematically muzzled and jailed critics to cement its hold on power. (Ali Hasanov, the head of the presidential administration, unapologetically stated this week that "illegal, unsanctioned protests will be dispersed in the future.")
'Looking The Other Way'
The U.S. State Department, in its annual human-rights report, has described Aliyev as "dominating" the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government, which are largely seen as serving the will of Azerbaijan's ruling clans.
Many, however, say such critiques ring hollow when the United States, in practical terms, has done little to stop the persistent repression of protesters, journalists, and human rights workers in Azerbaijan.
Pointing to the rough treatment of the March 10 protesters and the unexplained disappearance of one of its organizers, Ilkin Rustamadze, Amnesty International says it is "outrageous" that the United States and the European Union "continue to look the other way" on Azerbaijani rights abuses.
[Editor's note: The U.S. ambassador to Baku, Richard Morningstar, issued a statement March 12 calling on the Azerbaijani government to "respect the right of peaceful protest" and "engage in a meaningful dialogue with citizens to address legitimate public concerns."]
Natalia Nozadze, an Amnesty researcher, believes it's time for the international community to reconsider how it interacts with the Azerbaijani government.
"The policy of the European Union, the U.S., and other global players toward Azerbaijan is mainly shaped by two considerations," she says. "Economic interests that are based on the rich resources of Azerbaijan, and another, very important, factor -- which is often downplayed -- which is that Azerbaijan's current government, for better or for worse, is providing stability in the region."
Much of the concern centers on the supply of arms to Azerbaijan. The country has used its energy revenues to fuel a massive military buildup amid a bellicose standoff with neighboring Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
At the same time, it has steadily built up an arsenal of crowd-control devices that it is using regularly against demonstrators engaging in antigovernment protests, including truncheons, rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannons.
Much of the equipment appears to have been purchased from Israel and the United States.
Photographs of tear-gas canisters used to disperse crowds during January's Ismayili protests bear code numbers linking them to ISPRA, a defense manufacturing firm based in the Israeli city of Herzelya.
Likewise, weapons experts contacted by RFE/RL said the Mercedes-mounted water cannon used in the March 10 protests matches the shape and design of cannons produced by the Beit Alfa Trailer Company, a known supplier to Azerbaijan.
The LRAD, which resembles a truck-mounted satellite dish, has been brought to Azerbaijani protest sites but has not yet been used. (The LRAD has been used by police in neighboring Georgia since 2007, and was also purchased by Warsaw police ahead of Poland's co-hosting of the Euro 2012 soccer championships.)
The acoustic device, which was developed by a California-based private manufacturer, has since been copied by China. But photographs of the LRAD at the March 10 protest suggest the device is of U.S. origin.
Zardust Alizadeh, a Baku-based political analyst, maintains that until the West says otherwise, the flow of arms will continue unabated into Azerbaijan -- the only country in Eastern Europe whose arms imports are on the rise.
Alizadeh believes human rights should be monitored by the West. "But they're not," he says. "Azerbaijan does what the United States and Europe want. So the issue is never discussed."
The United States has several methods of withholding weapons sales to questionable regimes abroad, both through standard control lists and the so-called Leahy vetting process, which allows the State Department to use human rights criteria to withhold U.S. assistance and weigh in on defense transactions.
But the U.S.-manufactured LRAD, which is just over a decade old and brands itself as a "communications device," appears on no U.S. control lists, and therefore requires no export licenses.
According to Robert Putnam, the head of media and investor relations for the LRAD Corporation, the company has sold its equipment to 60 countries.
"Everybody that we've sold to is either part of a national [government] -- with the military, or law enforcement, or wildlife applications," he says. "Other than North Korea and a few countries like that that are on the banned list...we basically look at our opportunities to sell our technology into other countries around the world."
Business Trumps Rights Concerns?
The press service of the U.S. Embassy in Azerbaijan notes that the U.S. State Department takes into account political and human rights conditions in making a decision on the provision of military equipment to countries abroad.
But it adds that the LRAD is not defined as a "defense article," and notes that the embassy "does not typically get involved in contract negotiations between companies and foreign countries."
Weapons watchdog groups say business and political concerns frequently trump human-rights considerations, even in countries like the United States that serve as vocal standard-bearers on global rights issues.
The United States suspended its supplies of tear gas to Egypt during the Arab Spring uprising to protest the violent crackdown on protesters. But it has since resumed shipments, even though the country's new Islamist-led government has also used tear gas to subdue peaceful protesters.
The U.K.-based Omega Research Foundation, which tracks the manufacture and trade of military and police equipment, says that while rules exist, they are rarely applied evenly.
"There are clearly some countries that have a persistent pattern of rights violations which continue to receive military, security, or police support," the foundation says in an upcoming report on U.S. exports of crowd control and other weapons.
It adds, "The U.S. has very good State Department annual human rights reports, but those aren't applied rigorously, because if they were, then many of the export licenses would not be granted."
Amnesty's Nozadze echoes the sentiment, saying, "Certainly countries have, if not a legal, then certainly a moral responsibility to ensure the weapons produced in their country are not used for purposes of abusing human rights."
Certainly, crowd-control devices like tear gas, rubber bullets, and the LRAD -- which are generally categorized as "nonlethal" or "less lethal" weapons -- are seen as preferable options to guns and live ammunition, particularly in countries where police have the reputation of acting aggressively against protesters.
All the same, such devices are not without risk. Numerous deaths have been recorded in association with rubber bullets, tear gas, and other chemical sprays, which can sometimes inhibit breathing for up to half an hour.
The Omega Research Foundation says the use of crowd-control weapons can be "legitimate" in certain instances, but that the devices are often misused due to inadequate training or poor policing decisions.
Dozens of protesters at the March 10 rally bore the signs of rough treatment, and one photojournalist received an eye injury after being knocked to the ground by a water cannon that was fired without warning.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has worked with Azerbaijani police forces on training crowd-control tactics, resulting in what the U.S. characterized as a "more appropriate, proportional, and measured" response during a handful of demonstrations in 2011.
It is unclear, however, whether such lessons will last, particularly in what is expected to be a volatile run-up to the presidential election in October.
The outcry over the March 10 crackdown has prompted some within Azerbaijan to defend the police. "This nation doesn't think," one person commented on Facebook. "You run to the police when something happens to you, but now you're cursing them. The police are protecting the public order. That was an unsanctioned protest, and the police were following the law."
This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.