The government of Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev yesterday came under heavy fire at the Strasbourg-based Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe for holding dozens of presumed political prisoners in custody. But Baku avoided formal condemnation on the issue, escaping with a mere warning.
Prague, 27 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- For the second time since Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe in January 2001, the pan-European body yesterday criticized the leadership of the South Caucasus state for holding political prisoners in custody.
But the 45-member council stopped short of voting on a draft resolution condemning Baku for failing to meet basic human rights and democracy standards. Instead, its main legislative body granted the government of President Heydar Aliyev a two-month reprieve.
After a one-hour debate, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), agreed to give Azerbaijan until 1 September to demonstrate its willingness to solve the controversial issue of political prisoners or face the risk of another public debate and possible sanctions.
The draft resolution was contained in a strongly worded, 35-page report written by Belgian liberal deputy Georges Clerfayt. It suggested that if Azerbaijan did not release by 1 September all political prisoners considered as such by the Council of Europe, its credentials for the European assembly should be suspended.
But, in a surprise move, Clerfayt yesterday asked the assembly not to vote on the resolution.
"Our aim is not to obtain a text condemning Azerbaijan," Clerfayt said. "Our aim is to obtain the liberation of political prisoners. Therefore, I believe we'd better not vote today on the proposed resolution. Let us give the authorities of Azerbaijan a last chance."
Clerfayt suggested that the PACE legal affairs and human rights committee -- of which he is the rapporteur -- convene after the summer to review steps taken by the Azerbaijani leadership to comply with the Council of Europe's demands. If no progress is made by early September, Clerfayt added, the assembly would resume discussion of the fate of Azerbaijan's political prisoners later that month.
Azerbaijan's delegation to PACE had earlier tried -- with no success -- to postpone the debate until next January. If yesterday's decision appears to be a tactical victory for Azerbaijan, the Council of Europe's secretary-general, Walter Schwimmer, insists this is Baku's "last chance" to avoid sanctions.
Addressing the assembly, the head of the Azerbaijani delegation, Ilham Aliev, denied once again that there were any political prisoners in his country.
Aliev, who is the son of the Azerbaijani president and the first deputy chairman of the Yeni Azerbaycan (New Azerbaijan) ruling party, also said the people considered by the Council of Europe to be political prisoners were dangerous criminals.
"Separatists, terrorists, killers, and plane hijackers are considered by Mr. Clerfayt [to be] political prisoners," Aliyev said. "Today it is very easy to commit a crime if that logic [is taken for granted]. If [someone] prepares to [commit a] crime, first [he] becomes a member of a political party. After that, nongovernmental organizations automatically send information [to the Council of Europe] in which [he is] presented as a political prisoner."
What prompted Clerfayt to withdraw his draft resolution remains unclear. In his concluding speech, the parliamentarian cited the impossibility of examining all 34 amendments reportedly tabled by the Azerbaijani delegation.
Just minutes before, he had ardently urged the assembly to back his resolution and issue a strong ultimatum to Baku.
"Today the assembly must give Azerbaijan a solemn warning. What is needed is a U-turn and it is needed urgently, before September 1, before the electoral campaign begins [in Azerbaijan]," Clerfayt said.
Azerbaijan's 4.5 million voters are expected to go to the polls on 15 October to choose a new leader or reelect the incumbent president. The Council of Europe believes the existence of political prisoners would constitute an additional obstacle to the organization of free and fair elections.
Addressing the assembly yesterday, British liberal deputy Malcolm Bruce said the political situation in Azerbaijan boded ill for the upcoming elections.
"The supreme test of our credibility here today is whether or not Azerbaijan will have free and fair elections in October," Bruce said. "As of today, the climate does not appear to be in place for any such possibility.... All member states of the Council of Europe should have free and fair elections, should release all political prisoners, and should allow candidates who have any intention of being able to contest the elections to do so without fear of arrest or reprisal. If that does not happen, then I regret to say that Azerbaijan does not fill the qualifications for membership in the Council of Europe."
In his report, Clerfayt demands that two of Aliev's main political opponents -- former President Ayaz Mutalibov and former parliament speaker Rasul Quliyev -- be allowed to return to Azerbaijan to take part in the election. Both men are wanted by Azerbaijani authorities and have spent many years living in exile, in Russia and the United States, respectively.
The Democratic Party of Azerbaijan on 22 June nominated Quliyev as its candidate, but Mutalibov has not yet confirmed reports that he might run for president.
The PACE legal affairs and human rights committee also calls for the immediate release of eight prisoners it believes were sentenced on political grounds. It has likewise demanded that Baku resolve the issue of some 300 presumed political prisoners, who independent Azerbaijani rights groups believe were jailed for their opposition to Aliev's regime.
In January 2002, PACE adopted a resolution calling upon Azerbaijani authorities to quickly address the question of political prisoners. Yet, despite Baku's claims to the contrary, it seems that little has been done to that effect.
"Azerbaijan has not shown the political will to solve this problem, since the authorities continue, despite evidence, to declare that there are no political prisoners in the country," Clerfayt noted in his report.
Speaking to RFE/RL on the eve of the debate, the Belgian parliamentarian said successive presidential pardons had led to the release of nearly 200 presumed political prisoners in recent months. On 17 June, 24 people convicted for participating in attempted coups in 1994 and 1995 were freed.
Clerfayt welcomed these developments. But he cautioned against the misleading nature of such highly publicized amnesties, which in many cases concern people who have only a few weeks left to serve.
"All the main political prisoners remain in jail," he said. "And not only are there still an estimated 200 people from an initial list of presumed political prisoners established by local nongovernmental organizations, but also we have recently uncovered new presumed political prisoners. We have discovered some 70 people we had forgotten to include in our initial list dated January 2001 and, on top of that, another 50 cases of political prisoners have been produced since that date. [What it means is that] since Azerbaijan became a member of the Council of Europe, authorities in that country continue to produce political prisoners. This is really totally unacceptable."
In theory, political prisoners can apply for a presidential pardon. But both the Council of Europe and rights groups say amnesty procedures are not satisfactory.
Leila Yunus chairs the Institute for Peace and Democracy, a Baku-based nongovernmental organization campaigning for the development of civil society in Azerbaijan. In an interview with RFE/RL, she questioned the criteria applied by Azerbaijan's pardons commission.
"New rules have just been adopted under which the pardons commission can examine only the cases of prisoners who have written directly to the president to admit to their guilt, repent, and ask for pardon. What that means is that the pardons commission cannot examine the cases of those members of political parties who do not consider themselves guilty and who believe they have been sentenced illegally. These people simply cannot admit to crimes they have not committed."
Under pressure from the Council of Europe, Azerbaijan last year agreed to review the cases of three inmates the European body believes should be considered as political prisoners -- former Interior Minister Iskander Hamidov, former Deputy Defense Minister and ethnic Talysh separatist leader Alikram Hummatov and former Defense Minister Rahim Qaziyev. All three were first tried after Aliyev seized power in 1993 following a coup that forced former President Abulfez Elcibey out of office. Hamidov was sentenced to 14 years in jail on charges of abuse of power and misappropriation of state funds. The other two were initially sentenced to death on similar accusations -- augmented with charges of high treason in the case of Qaziyev -- but their sentences were later commuted to life imprisonment.
The three men are being re-tried at the Qobustan high-security jail outside Baku. Although there have been some improvements compared to the initial trials, rights activist Yunus says the new hearings are marred with irregularities.
"We have been following these cases very carefully. After each hearing, the defendants' lawyers issue short statements detailing which violations to the existing legislation and to international human rights conventions have been committed. We in turn send these statements to international human rights groups and to the Council of Europe, notably to the PACE legal affairs and human rights committee. Analysis of these hearings shows that there have been gross violations of international law and that, [contrary to what the Council of Europe has demanded,] the cases have not been independently investigated," Yunus said.
Clerfayt yesterday expressed concerns that the new trials might eventually turn into a "parody of justice" and said the three men must be quickly released.
He also said there was a risk that the number of political prisoners would grow in the lead-up to the elections.
While PACE delegates were discussing developments in Azerbaijan, the Baku-based independent Turan news agency reported that a member of the reformist wing of the Popular Front of Azerbaijan had been arrested on charges of hooliganism. Last week, two other members of the group and two militants from the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan were also arrested. Charges brought against the latter include attempting to sell radioactive materials.