The Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly yesterday passed a resolution calling upon Azerbaijani authorities to release all political prisoners named on a Council list. The Assembly also reiterated that there can be no political prisoners in any member state of the Council of Europe, which Azerbaijan joined a year ago. Yesterday's vote marks a low point in Azerbaijan's relations with the 43-member body, which was set up more than 50 years ago to promote democracy and human rights in Europe.
Prague, 25 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Nearly one year to the day after Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe, the pan-European body yesterday criticized the leadership of the South Caucasus state for continuing to hold political prisoners in custody.
In a resolution passed after a two-hour debate, the Council's Parliamentary Assembly, or PACE, called upon Azerbaijan authorities to release -- or at least re-try -- all political prisoners named on a Council list. It also urged Azerbaijan to quickly address the issue of another 600 or so inmates whom human rights groups say have been imprisoned on political grounds.
Yesterday's vote is likely to spark protests in Baku, where authorities deny they are holding any political prisoners, saying they have all already been released.
Addressing the Strasbourg-based Assembly yesterday, the head of the Azerbaijani delegation -- President Heidar Aliev's son Ilham -- openly questioned the conclusions of the council's experts.
"There are no political prisoners in Azerbaijan. The persons who are presented as political prisoners [by the Council's experts] have committed various crimes, including terrorist acts and murders, [or have] committed acts of aggressive separatism," Aliyev said. "They [have] never been, and are not now, politicians. Most of them used to work in [the] police, [the] national security [forces], and [the] army."
Despite the support of the Russian delegation -- which itself was chided by the Assembly this week for its poor human rights performance in Chechnya -- Aliyev was unable to sway the Assembly.
The cases of eight specific prisoners are of particular concern to the Council of Europe. They are: former police special forces (OPON) commanders Elchin Amiraslanov and Qalib Abdullaev; former OPON officer Arif Qazymov; former Ganje Chief of Police Natig Efendiev; former National Security Minister Nariman Imranov; former Prime Minister Suret Huseynov; former Interpol Azerbaijan bureau chief Ilqar Safikhanov; and former army officer Huseynbala Huseynov.
All eight were arrested and tried in closed-door proceedings between 1993 and 1996, after Aliyev took over from late President Ebulfaz Elchibey following a coup led by Suret Huseynov. All eight are serving sentences of between 11 years and life on charges ranging from corruption to high treason and attempting to overthrow the government.
These eight prisoners were among 23 pilot cases selected from a list of several hundred presumed political prisoners provided by the Baku-based Human Rights Center of Azerbaijan.
After months of review by independent experts, the Council concluded that 17 of the 23 cases could be considered politically motivated.
Six of the 17 were released in August as part of a broader presidential amnesty.
In an attempt to appease the Council's concerns, Azerbaijan's Court of Appeal announced on 14 January that it would review the case of the three other prisoners described as political by European experts -- former Interior Minister Iskander Hamidov; former Defense Minister Rahim Qaziev; and former Deputy Defense Minister and ethnic Talysh separatist leader Alikram Hummatov.
On 17 January, Azerbaijan's "Zerkalo" newspaper reported that Hummatov -- who is serving a life sentence on charges of high treason -- had rejected the court's decision to review his case, saying he fears facing fabricated charges again.
Human rights activists in Azerbaijan have expressed concerns that the new trials would be held behind closed doors at a high-security prison in eastern Azerbaijan, where other such hearings have already been held. They have demanded that independent observers be allowed to attend the proceedings.
The Council of Europe welcomed Azerbaijan's decision to review the cases of Hamidov, Qaziev, and Hummatov. But it insists that judicial investigations start from the beginning, that defendants are allowed to choose their defense counsels, and that trials be public and freely accessible to international observers.
Azerbaijani authorities, however, have so far given no sign that they are willing to meet the Council's demands.
Addressing PACE delegates yesterday, Belgian Deputy Georges Clerfayt said he had been informed that Azerbaijan's Court of Appeal had already begun reviewing Hummatov's case. Clerfayt, a member of the Assembly's Legal Affairs and Human Rights Committee, also said he has received reports from Baku suggesting that Qaziev would face a new trial by 30 January.
"Should this information be confirmed -- and I hope it is wrong -- I think we would need to raise a solemn protest. Such expeditious justice that does not provide for a new judicial investigation is a farce, a parody of justice."
Azerbaijani authorities claim that all alleged political prisoners mentioned by the pan-European body have already been granted a fair trial and have been convicted for serious crimes against the state -- and should therefore serve their sentences.
The Council of Europe, however, objects to this argument, saying that political motives have resulted in the prisoners alternately being subjected to unfair proceedings, sentenced to prison terms out of proportion to their offenses, or forced to suffer discriminatory treatment in custody. All three conditions contravene international human rights standards -- and therefore, the European body says, any individual falling into this category should be considered a political prisoner.
In a rare address to the Assembly, Council of Europe Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer yesterday said these criteria and others -- such as violations of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights, which Baku has yet to ratify -- apply in all 17 cases brought to the attention of the Azerbaijani authorities.
Schwimmer recalled that Azerbaijan pledged to release or review the case of all alleged political prisoners when it joined the Council of Europe on 25 January last year. He also said PACE will not tolerate further delay in addressing the issue.
Turning to the delegates, Schwimmer said, "One political prisoner in a member country of the Council of Europe is one too many. There should be no political prisoners. Therefore, please follow the recommendation of our independent experts."
As a gesture of goodwill on the part of the Azerbaijani leadership, the Assembly also demanded yesterday that the case of five other alleged political inmates be reviewed.
Among them are Galina Lebedeva, a former aide to exiled parliament Speaker Rasul Guliev; Janmirza Mirzoev, a former army officer whose only crime PACE delegate Clerfayt believes was to expose corruption in the Defense Ministry; businessman Muzakir Abdullaev; Sonmez Sikhmaz, a member of the Turkish-based Kurdistan Workers Party; and former Deputy Trade Minister Aydin Shirinov.
In his report to the Assembly, Clerfayt said the release of all remaining political prisoners would help Azerbaijan move toward national reconciliation and erase memories of the political turmoil that followed the demise of the Soviet Union.
The PACE said it reserves the right to take "any appropriate measures at its disposal" to persuade Azerbaijani authorities of the need to follow their suggestions regarding the political prisoners.