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Azerbaijan Report: May 13, 2003

13 May 2003
President Returns from Turkey
On 12 May at about 2 a.m. Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev checked out of the Gulhane Military Medical Academy in Ankara and returned to Baku. The academy's officials refused to provide any information about the president's health, according to the Anadolu news agency.

(RFE/RL Azerbaijani service)

PACE Representative Visits Political Prisoners
Last week Georges Clerfayt, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe's special rapporteur on Azerbaijan, came to inspect prison conditions of those it has been reviewing for political prisoner status. Clerfayt met with lawyers of prisoners whose cases are under review and visited prisons to get information directly from prisoners.

On 8 May Clerfayt met with leaders of the opposition Musavat, Popular Front, National Independence, Democratic and Civil Unity parties at the OSCE Baku office. The participants of the meeting exchanged views on who should be designated a political prisoner.

Parliament deputy Ali Kerimli, head of the "reformist" wing of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AXCP), told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani service that during the meeting he brought up the imprisonment of former interior minister Iskander Hamidov. Since none of accusations brought against him has been proved, the imprisonment is illegal, he said. Hamidov was convicted of plundering state property and abuse of power and began serving a 14-year sentence in 1995. The Council of Europe considers him a political prisoner.

Moreover, the parties' leaders asked Clerfayt to reinvestigate the complaints of Fahmin Hajiev, former commander of Azerbaijani interior ministry forces in 1992-93. Hajiev, who is considered by local human rights groups but not the Council of Europe to be a political prisoner, was arrested in 1994 on charges of surrendering the town of Khojali to Armenian armed forces and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Clerfayt said in response that he has investigated Hajiev's case and came to the conclusion that although the Council of Europe's experts do not consider him to be a political prisoner, he personally regards Hajiev as a political prisoner. This point would probably find its reflection in the rapporteur's next report, Kerimli said, adding that the parties' leaders also raised the issue of imprisoned OMON [special police forces] members, who were arrested for their participation in an attempted coup in March 1995.

At the meeting Serdar Jelaloglu, chairman of the Democratic Party, linked the problem of political prisoners and political migrants with the election issue. Therefore, he did not exclude the possibility that the number of political prisoners will increase as the presidential ballot draws nearer.

(Maarif Chingizoglu)

Opposition Rejects Venice Commission's Election Code Suggestion
In a rare show of unity with the New Azerbaijan Party-led parliament, the Opposition Coordination Center (MKM) at its 8 May meeting also rejected the Council of Europe's Venice Commission's suggestions regarding the government's draft election code. Democratic Party chairman Serdar Jelaloglu said in an interview with RFE/RL's Azerbaijani service that despite the parliament's rejection, the suggested variant opens wide possibilities for the authorities.

The Venice Commission suggests forming the Central Election Commission of 16 members. Under this variant, six seats in the commission are given to the ruling party and another six are divided equally among non-partisan parliament deputies and opposition parties represented in the parliament. The remaining four seats are granted to opposition parties that overcame the 1 percent barrier in the last parliamentary elections.

Jelaloglu argued that it is wrong to give six out of 16 seats to the ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP). Moreover, it should be taken into account that deputies listed as "non partisan" in fact support the government.

The parties� leaders discussed all this and stated unequivocally that they will not endorse the election code until election commissions are formed on a parity basis, Jelaloglu said. He also noted that the political forces united under the center came to an agreement to continue protest actions in suburban areas of Baku as well. The leaders also criticized the Defense Ministry's nomination of Heydar Aliyev as a presidential candidate, calling it interference by the ministry in policy and a sign of the violent seizure of power.

Meanwhile, the MKM is going to hold its next protest on 16 May with the participation of all political forces represented in the center.

(Babek Bekir)

WB Official Responds to NGOs Anti-BTC Pressure
The letter of some Georgian and international organizations to international financial institutions in connection with the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline reflects political views rather than the real situation, said Keti Dgebuadze, the World Bank Caucasus regional coordinator, at a 9 May press conference. Dgebuadze also heads a coalition of more than 50 Georgian non-governmental organizations that support construction of BTC.

Last summer more than 60 non-governmental organization appealed to the World Bank and other international financial organizations not to allocate grants for the construction of BTC, arguing that it would destroy the ecological balance and rekindle regional conflicts. However, Azerbaijani non-governmental organizations disputed those claims and formed an international coalition of NGOs in support of the BTC pipeline.

Dgebuadze noted at the press conference that Georgia's Ministry of Environmental Protection has agreed to take all appropriate measures to minimize the pipeline's possible impact on the environment. In fact, the pipeline poses no ecological threat to Borjomi and Akhalkalaki districts. The local population is looking forward to the realization of the BTC project.

"Their attitude toward the project is good, of course. I would like to note that we ourselves have also been in Borjomi and Akhalkalaki districts," Dgebuadze said. "The local population is waiting impatiently for the pipeline's construction, because it means both the opening of additional workplaces and the creation of an alternative energy source to electrical power."

Dgebuadze noted that the number of Georgian non-governmental organizations which have appealed to world financial institutions, in fact, is not so great. On the contrary, organizations that protect the pipeline are more influential in terms of both the number and the level of professionalism.

Sabit Bagirov, head of the coalition of Azerbaijani non-governmental organizations endorsing the BTC, also called the allegations of the pipeline's impact on the environment "baseless." Non-governmental organizations should monitor the level of environmental protection during the pipeline's operation rather than trying to block its realization, Bagirov said, adding that his coalition has prepared a long-term working plan to realize this monitoring. Dgebuadze pointed out that Georgia's non-governmental organizations are also preparing monitoring projects for the same purpose.

Bagirov recalled that international financial organizations are soon expected to make a decision on granting loans for the construction of BTC. He did not rule out that non-governmental organizations opposing the BTC would again voice their protests on the threshold of this decision.

(Natig Zeinalov)

President's Poor Health Results in More Pressure on Opposition Papers
President Heydar Aliev's health troubles have caused serious disputes between the mass media and government. Baku Metropolitan chairman Tagi Ahmedov reportedly has told newsstand sellers that he will only renew permits of sellers who refuse to sell opposition papers at metro newsstands because of articles the papers have run about the president�s health. In a related move, Prosecutor-General Zakir Garalov sent official warnings to some intellectuals as well as newspapers, such as "Yeni Musavat," "Azadlig" and "Hurriyyet."

Editors of these newspapers, for their part, argue that the prosecutor-general allowed insult and bias in the statement; therefore, they are going to take the issue to court. "Hurriyyet" editor-in-chief Aidin Guliev told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani service that the office of the public prosecutor has no legal right to bring an accusation against the newspapers, calling the move a violation of journalists' rights.

But Mubariz Gurbanli, a parliament deputy representing the ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP), said that today's articles regarding the president's health do not correspond to ethical norms. As for an appeal to the Press Council, Gurbanli noted that if there had been a need, the council would have long ago taken appropriate measures.

Press Council chairman Aflatun Amashov, for his part, disagreed with some newspaper articles on the president's health. "Irrespective of who a journalist writes about, he must observe professional and ethical norms. The recent materials in the mass media contain information contrary to the president's honor and dignity. But the same opinion is also true for governmental newspapers. Governmental newspapers also publish articles insulting opposition leaders.""To date the council has received one official letter protesting articles about the president," Amashov said. The author of the letter is Fazail Agamali, head of the pro-governmental Ana Vatan (Motherland) Party.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijani media representatives have appealed to some international organizations demanding that an end be put to the pressures on the press. Journalists Trade Union chairman Mushvig Alesgerli has also alerted international institutions to the current dangerous situation surrounding the freedom of speech and press in Azerbaijan. The appeal says that since 2003 is an election year, it has livened up the political processes in Azerbaijan. The president's recent health problems have resulted in an increase in the existing shortcomings in state institutions' activities and losing control over the processes. Such a situation creates serious problems for local mass media. The appeal calls for international bodies to keep the situation in Azerbaijan in focus and react operatively to occurrences.

Azer Hasret, head of the Azerbaijani Journalists Confederation, told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani service that Paris-based World Newspapers Association (WNA) and World Editors Forum (WEF) have sent a letter to President Aliyev in protest against pressures exerted on Azerbaijani press. The letter condemns the recent attack on the editorial office of the opposition newspaper "Yeni Musavat," noting the fact that the Azerbaijani government is obliged to fulfil its obligations before the world and ensure journalists' security, as well as the mass media's normal work. The two organizations demanded that an investigation be launched in connection with the incident and the attackers be punished. Hasret also denied that current pressure on the media is liked to the upcoming presidential elections. "This process is mainly related to the president's health," he concluded.

(Zhale Mutallimova and Almaz Mahmudgizi)

Azerbaijani newspapers continue to run articles on President Heydar Aliev's health. Newspapers point out that President Aliyev returned to Baku on 12 May after completing medical treatment at the Gulhane Military Medical Academy.

The governmental newspapers "Azerbaycan" and "Khalg" published some foreign leaders' and representatives letters of congratulation to the Azerbaijani president on the occasion of his 80th birthday.

Under the headline "President Aliev's sudden return," the opposition newspaper "Azadlig" writes that the president is expected to retire from his duties and go for long-term medical treatment.

Nine years have passed since the signing of the cease-fire agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Local newspapers gave wide coverage to this event.

Under the headline "Our soldiers have not been sent to Iraq," the independent newspaper "Uch Nogta" writes that the sending of Azerbaijani soldiers to Iraq has been postponed for an uncertain period. A total of 150 Azerbaijani peacekeepers were due to go to Iraq on 12 May.

Nadir Bairamli in an article entitled "The Azerbaijani army is a guarantor of peace in the Caucasus" in the pro-governmental newspaper "Yeni Azerbaijan" points out that nine years have passed since the signing of the cease-fire agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Various opinions have been voiced during these nine years. While some people endorse the signing of such an agreement, others oppose it. Bairamli writes that "considering the realities at that time, we can say that this agreement signed in Bishkek corresponds to our national interests. It is known that in 1992-93 the process of building the national armed forces in Azerbaijan was slow and the instability in the country caused a successive occupation of our lands. Heydar Aliev, who came to power for the second time in June 1993, was first of all engaged in saving our national statehood from the dangers of splitting. Different versions have been voiced during the last nine years. But the fact is that Azerbaijan has tried to benefit to the maximum from the respite."

Nurshan Guliev in the article "End the shooting" in the independent newspaper "Khalg" notes that many words have been said during these nine years. Some people think that such a step was important. Others are sure that there was no need for signing a cease-fire agreement. Guliev writes "Those who attempt to convince us of the need for a cease-fire, say that it was essential in terms of building, developing and improving our army. But the Armenians aren't standing still either, are they?"

In an interview with the independent Russian-language newspaper "Zerkalo" NATO Secretary General George Robertson said that perhaps the world has changed after the 11 September events, but the Caucasus continues to be a region of special importance for the stability in Eurasia. Robertson also noted NATO cannot and will not lay claim to a leading role in accelerating the peace process in the region. The responsibility for this falls generally to the regional countries themselves. It is also evident that a solution to the conflict is impossible without the participation of the region's leading forces, including Russia. In this sense, Azerbaijan's bilateral relations with Russia are of great importance and these relations have developed during the last few months. "We hope that NATO could further develop its relations with Russia and as a result succeed in solving some issues in the region," Robertson concluded.

Social-Democratic Party (ASDP) chairman Araz Alizade and Vahdet Party chairman Tahir Kerimli recently returned from Moscow, where they met with Azerbaijani ex-president Ayaz Mutallibov. In an interview with the independent newspaper "525," Alizade said that his visit to Moscow with Kerimli was not an official one. But they took advantage of the opportunity and met with Mutallibov. Alizade noted that "irrespective of what view Mutallibov adheres, we, as the Azerbaijani Forces Union, will treat his decisions with respect. Should he return to Azerbaijan, we will be the first who will protect his rights. As for our support for Mutallibov's candidacy, it is unrealistic, since the ASDP has already proposed my candidacy." Alizade pointed out that on 25 May the German Social-Democrat Party (SDP) will celebrate its 140th anniversary, adding that he will participate in the jubilee celebrations. He said that German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who is also the SDP chairman, had sent a letter to him on this occasion. "We cannot say 'no' to a letter from such a person. Therefore I decided to participate in the SDP jubilee celebrations. Moreover, I plan to visit Great Britain and Bulgaria along with Germany and take part in meetings of the Socialist International in these countries."

An author writing only as Azimli in the article "Could we save ourselves from Aliev's regime?" in the independent newspaper "Yeni Zaman" comments on the opposition's activities and writes that there is no great difference between the living standards of the government and opposition representatives. Azimli appeals to the opposition saying that "you did not say no to luxurious living conditions during the time of Heydar Aliev, and you helped Aliyev by doing that. It is thanks to you that the Western press writes about Aliyev as a democrat. Western newspapers write that Aliyev differs seriously from the Central Asian leaders and creates many more conditions for the development of democracy in the country� The occurrences again prove that the opposition cannot take the steps that we need and this cannot continue much longer. One should expect action by the end of the month at least. If there are no changes in the opposition's steps after this month is over, we will have to openly tell the people not to expect anything from them because they themselves pin their hopes on either Uncle Sam or someone's death. This kind of opposition could eventually turn into a tool in someone's hands."

Ramiz Abutalibov, secretary general of the Azerbaijani National Commission for UNESCO, said in an interview with the government newspaper "Khalg" that Azerbaijan joined the UNESCO 1972 Convention on the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage in December 1993. "Icheri Sheher (the Old City) of Baku has been included in the World Heritage List." Asked "What does it give?" Abutalibov said that first the list offers worldwide acknowledgment and second the opportunity for receiving international aid. Abutalibov pointed out that the president's decree on "some measures for the protection and restoration of the Icheri Sheher historical and architectural complex" must be realized soon. Moreover, Azerbaijan, as a country that has joined the 1972 convention, must constantly monitor the country's monuments from the moment they were included in the World Heritage List.

(Compiled and translated by Etibar Rasulov)