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Azerbaijan: Former Political Convicts Seek Removal Of Convictions Ahead Of Polls

(RFE/RL) The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on 9 August welcomed recent decisions by Azerbaijani courts to clear the criminal records of seven opposition leaders sentenced on charges of fomenting public unrest nearly two years ago in Baku. The unprecedented move in principle allows them to run in the November parliamentary polls. But dozens of other oppositionists cannot run because of similar convictions that have not been overturned.

Prague, 11 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The OSCE had long pressed Azerbaijani authorities to remove the conviction records of the seven prominent oppositionists. Among them are three deputy chairmen of the Musavat party -- Rauf Arifoglu, Arif Hacili, and Ibrahim Ibrahimli.

The other four are the secretary-general of Azerbaijan’s Democratic Party, Sardar Calaloglu; the chairman of the Umid (Hope) party, Iqbal Agazade; Halq (People’s) Party leader and former Prime Minister Panah Huseynov; and the chair of the Karabakh War Veterans Association, Etimad Asadov.

Following a marathon trial that attracted much attention outside Azerbaijan, the seven men were sentenced to jail terms of 2 1/2 to five years for allegedly inciting street violence in the aftermath of the disputed October 2003 presidential elections. Yielding to international pressure, President Ilham Aliyev amnestied them after a few months.

But it was only in recent weeks that Azerbaijani courts began to rescind the guilty verdicts. Arifoglu, who had received the heaviest sentence, was the last to have his conviction removed on 2 August. All seven men can now – at least in theory -- take part in the upcoming polls.

More Opposition Figures

But Azerbaijan’s rights campaigners say many more opposition figures remain barred from the November election because, although most have been released from jail, their sentences have not been quashed. These opposition figures break into two groups.

The first are former political prisoners, who -- like former Interior Minister Iskander Hamidov -- were sentenced under late President Heydar Aliyev in the mid-1990s. Although Ilham Aliyev has pardoned most of them, none can run for parliament because their convictions remain in force. The second group comprises the 135 opposition activists convicted for their alleged role in the 2003 unrest.

Leyla Yunus, the chairwoman of the Baku-based NGO Institute for Peace and Democracy, told RFE/RL the candidacy ban applies to most of the group -- including 93 people who received suspended jail sentences.

"Those 93 people still have a criminal record. Consequently, they cannot enjoy their constitutional rights. They cannot take part in election campaigns, including the present one," she said. "Since most of [them] are opposition party members, proactive citizens, their non-participation would leave a negative imprint on the upcoming polls, which would then be hardly described as free and democratic.”

Still Being Denied

Among those who are still being denied the right to seek a seat in parliament is Ilqar Ibrahimoglu, the akhund (theologian) of Baku’s Cuma (Djuma) Mosque and the chair of the Azerbaijani chapter of the U.S.-headquartered International Religious Liberty Association. In April last year, Ibrahimoglu received a five-year suspended sentence for allegedly helping organize the 2003 unrest.

He spent more than three months in pretrial detention before finally being released. But because his conviction still stands, Azerbaijani authorities have repeatedly refused to let him attend human rights and scientific forums abroad. Ibrahimoglu told our correspondent a Baku district court last April refused to retract his conviction.

“The reason [I was given] was perfectly absurd. I was told during the Yasamal court hearings that I hadn’t shown any improvement, that I hadn’t changed my ways and that I had been trying to participate in international conferences on human rights, including some organized by the United Nations and the OSCE," he said. "To them, this was an indication that I had not improved.”

Ibrahimoglu this week turned down an offer to run as deputy for the opposition Azadliq (Liberty) election alliance.

“I am not a member of any political party," he explained. "[But] I first reacted positively to the offer the Azadliq leadership had made me, to be on their list of candidates with other representatives of the intelligentsia. But when I realized that the judges were constructing all sorts of bureaucratic hurdles [to have my criminal record cleared], I officially asked Azadliq to remove my name. To me, the real question is not whether [I] will take part in these polls. What [I] really want is for these elections to be fair and objective.”

'No Logic Here'

Rights campaigner Yunus said removing the convictions of the seven opposition leaders while maintaining those of rank-and-file activists, or mere sympathizers, is inconsistent and unfair.

“There is no logic here," she said. "If these people who allegedly organized the [2003] unrest could have their criminal records removed, why not all the others who were mere participants and who received much lighter, even suspended sentences? Obviously, there is a contradiction here.”

Under Azerbaijani laws, any individual who wants his criminal record cleared must either appeal to the courts, or wait until his conviction expires. Legal expert and opposition parliamentarian Alimammad Nuriyev told RFE/RL that, depending on the seriousness of the offense, the conviction continues to stand for between one and eight years after the prison sentence expires. He said all those who were convicted in connection with the 2003 unrest and who wish to participate in the upcoming polls have no other alternative than to turn to courts.

“Most of those who have been appealing to courts have allegedly committed particularly serious crimes, which means that normally they would have to wait eight years or so until their convictions expire,” Nuriyev said.

Ticking Clock

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking for prospective candidates, who have until 28 August to submit the 450 signatures of support required by law. The deadline for registering candidates is 6 September. Yunus said former political prisoners and convicted oppositionists have mandated her organization to write President Aliyev and ask him to order that their criminal records be cleared immediately. The signatories have decided to not seek international help for the time being. Yunus says it is time for Aliyev to listen to his fellow citizens -- and not just act under pressure from the OSCE or the Council of Europe.

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