Prague, 23 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- PACE delegates yesterday held two simultaneous debates on Azerbaijan.
One was on the functioning of democratic institutions in the former Soviet republic. The other was on the issue of political prisoners, whose release has long been demanded by the Council of Europe.
Referring to a report prepared by PACE’s monitoring committee, British representative Lord John Kilclonney of Armagh sent Ilham Aliyev a strong warning, saying failure to ensure democratic elections would have serious consequences.
“This assembly will be unable to ratify the credentials of the new [Azerbaijani] delegation if elections in November are not free and fair," he said. "It would be most regrettable if that should be the case."
Since Azerbaijan joined the Strasbourg-based assembly in January 2001, it has regularly come under fire for its failure to meet European democracy standards.
As PACE’s co-rapporteurs on Azerbaijan recalled yesterday, not a single election held in that country over the past four years has been free and fair.
"It is a matter of concern that opposition people complain of continually being harassed, arrested, sometimes threatened, [while] others are forced into exile and unable to come back to the country, because they know that if they do they will be arrested."
The October 2003 presidential election, which saw Ilham Aliyev succeed his father Heidar, had a controversial outcome, and triggered street protests that ended with the arrest and conviction of seven opposition leaders, who were subsequently amnestied.
Also of particular concern to the assembly is the fate of more than 100 political prisoners. They remain in custody despite calls for their release.
Among them are two Heidar Aliyev opponents. Azerbaijani authorities accuse Elcin Amiraslanov and Arif Qazimov, both former members of Azerbaijan's OPON riot police, of plotting to overthrow the government in 1995. Both men were arrested in 1996. Amiraslanov was sentenced to 13 years in jail, and Qazimov was sentenced to death. That sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
Ilham Aliyev has pardoned many alleged political prisoners since he came to power. PACE delegate Malcom Bruce yesterday welcomed those steps, but said the issue was still not resolved.
In his report to the assembly, the British parliamentarian noted that an estimated 83 additional people have recently been arrested and convicted on political grounds. “It is a matter of concern that opposition people -- whether they are journalists, activists or potential candidates -- complain of continually being harassed, arrested, sometimes threatened, [while] others are forced into exile and unable to come back to the country, because they know that if they do they will be arrested," Bruce said. "And indeed, people are being harassed simply for being friends of, or related to, opposition people, even though they themselves are not active in any way. I’m sorry to say that I continue to receive such indications.”
Azerbaijani delegates said Baku considers such detainees to be common criminals, not political prisoners.
The Azerbaijani delegates received strong support from one of their Russian colleagues, Leonid Slutsky of the far-right Liberal Democratic Party.
Referring to a PACE draft resolution on political prisoners, Slutsky accused its author, Bruce, of fomenting political unrest in Azerbaijan similar to that recently seen in Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. “The present draft resolution aims, in the run-up to the legislative election, at fully amnestying those who actively participated in the 2003 unrest and therefore at creating perfect conditions for new unrest," he said.
"This document is obviously the work of those who are not opposed to the idea of preparing the ground for developments similar to those tragic events that took place in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan," Slutsky said. "This is unacceptable. This report’s author carries a heavy responsibility. But this assembly has no right to pave the way for a new ‘color’ revolution.”
Azerbaijan’s Azadliq (Liberty) opposition coalition, which is led by the reformist wing of the Popular Front, has adopted orange as its campaign color -- famous for its association with Ukraine's revolution late last year. Another opposition coalition, known as Yeni Siyaset (New Politics), yesterday announced that it had opted for the color white, as a symbol of peace and dignity.
Inspired by the recent changes in Georgia and Ukraine, both coalitions have threatened Ilham Aliyev's government with massive street protests if the November election is considered fraudulent.
Azadliq has in the past month staged three rallies in central Baku to demand free and fair polls. The first march on 21 May was not authorized by the city authorities and resulted in the detention of dozens of opposition activists by security forces. Yielding to international pressure, the Baku municipality authorized the next two rallies, which were held without incident. Authorities have yet to authorize another opposition demonstration scheduled for 25 June.
In one of the two final resolutions adopted yesterday, PACE delegates urged Azerbaijan’s authorities to seek dialogue with their opponents and ensure freedom of assembly and speech in the run-up to the polls.
Hours earlier, however, Azerbaijan’s Parliament Speaker Murtuz Alesgerov had accused antigovernment parties of receiving foreign subsidies, thus threatening the country’s independence.
Alesgerov's accusations echoed similar charged leveled the day before by Ali Ahmadov, the executive secretary of the Yeni Azerbaycan (New Azerbaijan) ruling party, “Unfortunately, there are political forces which, instead of relying on the people, are relying on financial resources available in various countries," he said. "With time this will become more and more obvious.”
In remarks made to Azerbaijan’s Turan news agency, Ahmadov yesterday said that there is no need for the opposition to stage weekly street demonstrations, which he described as a rehearsal for massive unrest.
(Ilqar Rasul of RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service contributed to this report from Baku.)