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Christoph Straesser, a Council of Europe rapporteur for Azerbaijan
BAKU -- A Council of Europe rapporteur for Azerbaijan says sanctions cannot be ruled out if Baku continues to block his fact-finding visit, RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service reports.

The comment came in a note posted on the website of Christoph Straesser, a German parliament member, on March 23.

Straesser serves as the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe's (PACE) special rapporteur on political prisoners in Azerbaijan.

In January, Straesser told RFE/RL he was unable to get a government invitation necessary for gaining a visa to visit Azerbaijan.

Straesser's March 23 note says that during a PACE session on January 24 he raised "the failure of the Azerbaijani authorities to cooperate in organizing his fact-finding visit."

"In his capacity as Rapporteur, Christoph Straesser offers the hand of friendship to his Azerbaijani colleagues and invites them to engage in cooperation on this basis and to abandon the evasiveness and stalling witnessed to date, so that an objective and balanced report can be submitted to the Committee," the note says.

"However, if cooperation is blocked and preparations for the visit cannot progress, sanctions can no longer be ruled out."

Local human rights activists give various assessments of how many political prisoners are in Azerbaijan's jails.

Leyla Yunus, head of the Baku-based Institute for Peace and Democracy, tells RFE/RL there are 60 political prisoners. But another defender, Novella Jafaroglu, puts the number at 20.

Perhaps the best-known among them is journalist Eynulla Fatullayev, who remains jailed on drugs charges despite a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that he should be released.

Azerbaijani authorities deny they are holding any political prisoners. They say the people identified as political prisoners by local human rights defenders and international watchdogs were sentenced for committing criminal offenses.

Read more in Azeri here
Tursunbek Akun
Tursunbek Akun has been a champion of human rights in Kyrgyzstan for a long time now. And not just in Kyrgyzstan. Akun, who has served as Kyrgyzstan's ombudsman for since 2008, wrote to his Uzbek counterpart Sayera Rashidova (daughter of Uzbekistan's longtime Soviet leader Sharaf Rashidov) asking her to intervene and have the Human Rights Watch office in Uzbekistan reopened.

"I do not doubt even a bit that Human Rights Watch staff were doing in Uzbekistan the crucial, and I should admit, difficult work -- at times putting their own lives in danger -- of monitoring and protecting civil and human rights and freedoms," Akun wrote. "They never meant to do any harm to your government or people," he added, asking, "I hope that you, as the human rights commissioner of the Uzbek parliament, will make all efforts to inform your country's leadership about the positive side and the necessity of the HRW's presence in Uzbekistan, which would ultimately make it possible to correct this regrettable misunderstanding and put an end to the issue."

I wasn't surprised to see Akun had written the letter. He has been a controversial character in Kyrgyzstan, viewed by some as an opponent of the government and lately, in his official role as ombudsman, as a government stooge. He is neither, and is dedicated to trying to do some good.

I have a story to tell about Tursunbek.

I've known him on a first-name basis for more than a decade. When I met him he was the "people's diplomat," at least that's what his friends and close associates were calling him.

That was late summer 1999 and the reason he earned that unofficial title was due to his personal efforts to mediate between hostage takers in southern Kyrgyzstan, who turned out to be the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and the government that was reluctant to negotiate with the militants directly. He had no mandate from the authorities and no one was employing him as a mediator, he just thought he could help. He would walk up into the mountains and spend a few days with the IMU group before returning to tell anxious officials what the militants wanted.

When I arrived in Bishkek, en route to Batken, Tursunbek had just returned from his second foray up into the southern mountains to try again to convince the militants to release the villagers, the state officials, and four Japanese geologists they were holding captive. Naturally I wanted to hear what he would say and since he is an old friend of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service it wasn't difficult to arrange a meeting in Bishkek.

He told me about the militants, their ages, clothing, how they acted, what they believed. "Take me with you next time," I begged and he agreed.

Members of parliament put a halt to that. They pointed out to me and Tursunbek that the militants already had four Japanese captives and the Kyrgyz government did not want to offer them an opportunity to add another foreigner to their list of hostages.

I made it to Batken and watched the confusion and fear the IMU created in the Batken region. There hadn't been any "militants" in that part of the world since the Basmachi some 70 years earlier. It was difficult for everyone to comprehend the situation.

Tursunbek was there also. He came down out of the mountains after his third attempt at negotiating the hostages' release, a few days after I arrived in the area.

"How was it?" I asked.

"They won't let the hostages go free, they want to go to Uzbekistan and overthrow the government," he said. Then he looked at me and said calmly, without any particular concern, "Abdul Aziz [the IMU field commander in the mountains at that moment] told me not to come back. He said if I did I would be missing a head by morning."

Abdul Aziz was killed soon after that when he came down from the mountains. Tursunbek was planning on another attempt at gaining the hostages' freedom but the IMU took their Japanese hostages (they let the others go after a ransom was paid) south into Tajikistan.

So I wasn't surprised to see that Kyrgyzstan's ombudsman was taking up HRW's cause in Uzbekistan. I personally have little hope his appeal to Rashidova will change the situation but I'm impressed Tursunbek continues to try to do some good when and where he can.

-- Bruce Pannier

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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