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Azerbaijan: PACE Lambastes Baku Over Political Prisoners, Slow Pace Of Reforms

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) today held a debate on the controversial issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan and examined Baku's commitments to democratic standards. The debate followed the publication last week of a report by Human Rights Watch that strongly criticized Azerbaijani authorities for stepping up pressure on their opponents following last October's disputed presidential elections.

Prague, 27 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Azerbaijan came under fire today at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) for its failure to fulfill the legal and human rights pledges it made three years ago when it joined the Strasbourg-based body.

PACE delegates demanded that Azerbaijani authorities release all inmates they consider political prisoners before the assembly holds its autumn session. In addition, they demanded that Baku accelerate the democratization of its institutions along European democracy lines within the next few months.

"Every additional hour prisoners spend in their cells for political reasons is an infamy that we cannot tolerate."
What sanctions Azerbaijan might face for failing to meet these demands is unclear. A resolution drafted before the debate said the inability to quickly release political prisoners would leave Baku's relations with the Council of Europe in a "critical" state.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service after the debate, PACE monitoring committee member and Swiss delegate Andreas Gross said failure to demonstrate a commitment to democracy standards might result in Azerbaijan facing a review of its credentials in the assembly: "We have to see [Azerbaijan's] will to make steps forward. If we don't see that will [by] May or June, we have the power to take away the credentials of the parliamentary delegation of Azerbaijan. This is the sanction power of the Parliamentary Assembly. We can also propose that the [Council of Europe's] committee of ministers question the membership of Azerbaijan in the Council of Europe. But diplomats and ambassadors are much less courageous than parliamentarians are, so this is not very realistic."

Azerbaijan and the neighboring republic of Armenia both joined the Council of Europe in January 2001, despite strong objections raised by civil rights campaigners and some PACE delegates, who cited gross abuses and violations of basic freedoms in both countries.

The assembly argued then that admitting the two rival nations would help reach a peace agreement over the Nagorno-Karabakh territorial dispute and bolster democratic reforms in both former Soviet republics.

The Council of Europe soon became disenchanted, however. Addressing PACE delegates today, Swiss parliamentarian Dick Marty today criticized Azerbaijan for failing to meet most democratic standards required from Council of Europe member states: "Looking back a few years behind, one has to conclude that there is today a certain feeling of disillusion due to the fact that our hopes have been largely deceived. We have concrete elements that show that election results are being falsified, that [political opponents] are being intimidated, that the judiciary is not independent, and that there are a great number of political prisoners [in Azerbaijan]."

Of particular concern to the European assembly is the issue of political prisoners, which has already been debated several times in Strasbourg. Despite claims from Azerbaijani authorities that all prisoners held in custody are mere "criminals," the Council of Europe says a number of people remain in jail for their opposition to the ruling regime.

Three years ago, European experts drew up a list of 23 pilot cases selected from a list of several hundred presumed political prisoners provided by Baku-based human-rights campaigners and concluded that 17 of them could be considered politically motivated.

Yielding to European pressures, Azerbaijani authorities have pardoned some of theses inmates. Other prisoners have been retried and given reduced jail terms.

President Ilham Aliyev last month ordered the release of former Interior Minister Iskander Hamidov, former Interpol Baku bureau chief Ilqar Safihanov, and two other prisoners believed to be held on political grounds.

In 1995, Hamidov was given an initial 14-year prison sentence on embezzlement charges. That same year, Safihanov was sentenced to 15 years in jail for his alleged participation in a coup attempt against Ilham Aliyev's father and Azerbaijan's then-president, Heidar Aliyev.

PACE representatives today welcomed the recent presidential pardon decree but said this is not enough. They called upon the Azerbaijani leader to take rapid action on the remaining six pilot cases.

Those include former Defense Minister Rahim Qaziyev; former separatist leader Alikram Hummatov; former Prime Minister Suret Huseynov; former Ganca police chief Natiq Efendiyev; former Qazah special police force (OPON) chief Elcin Amiraslanov; and former police officer Arif Qazimov.

As Denmark's PACE representative, Soren Sonderrgaard, reminded Azerbaijan today, there should be no political prisoners in any member state of the Council of Europe. Sonderrgaard, who is a co-rapporteur of the PACE monitoring committee, issued Azerbaijani authorities a blunt warning: "The problem, we think, is quite clear. A, there can be no political prisoners in any member state of the Council of Europe. B, Azerbaijan is a member of the Council of Europe. C, there are political prisoners in Azerbaijan. It is quite clear. There are not 50 different ways to solve that problem. There is only one way to solve that problem -- that is, that all political prisoners [be] released."

Brushing aside claims by the Azerbaijani authorities that Baku has fulfilled "99 percent" of its obligations before the Council of Europe, international human-rights campaigners have expressed concern at the new situation that emerged from last year's presidential elections.

Last October, Ilham Aliyev succeeded his ailing father in a controversial election opposition leaders and some international observers say was marred by massive fraud, intimidation of independent media, and violence against nongovernmental candidates.

Those were the first national polls to be held since Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe. On 23 January, the New York-based nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch issued a report that blamed Aliyev for cracking down on political dissent since his election. Denouncing Azerbaijan's "serious human rights crisis," the group said it had documented many cases of torture against opposition political leaders arrested for allegedly fomenting postelection unrest.

At least 700 opposition activists and election observers were detained after the polls. Most of them were subsequently released, but estimates put at more than 100 the number of postelection detainees who remain in custody.

Those include Musavat opposition party leaders Ibrahim Ibrahimli, Arif Hacili, Sulhaddin Akper, and Arif Arifoglu; Democratic Party Secretary-General Serdar Jalaloglu; Umid party leader Iqbal Agazade; Halq party chairman Panah Huseynov; and Etimad Asadov, the chairman of the Karabakh War Veterans Association.

Most of them were remanded in custody for another three months a few days ago. Another prominent opponent, the director of Azerbaijan's Center for Freedom of Conscience and Religion, Ilqar Ibrahimoglu, was arrested on 3 December and charged in connection with postelection protests.

Although none of these political leaders is included in the list of detainees recognized as political prisoners by the Council of Europe, the assembly has repeatedly expressed concerns at postelection developments in Azerbaijan.

Greek Cypriot PACE delegate Christos Pourgourides today made it clear the European assembly is running out of patience and will tolerate no further delay in settling the issue of political prisoners. While noting Azerbaijan has made some progress toward democratizing its institutions, Pourgourides -- a member of the European People's Party (EPP) group -- said the Council of Europe expects greater commitment from its leadership: "The new president [of Azerbaijan] and the Azerbaijani Parliament must work harder to bring about all necessary democratic changes within the next few months, not within the next few years. With regard [to] political prisoners, the EPP's message is much clearer and much stronger -- no country that holds political prisoners in [its] jails can be a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe."

Echoing the general mood at the assembly, Swiss delegate Marty said failure to have Baku comply by its demands might jeopardize the Council of Europe's prestige. "Every additional hour prisoners spend in their cells for political reasons is an infamy that we cannot tolerate," he said.

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