Azerbaijan says it will review the convictions of three prominent political prisoners serving long prison sentences for alleged crimes ranging from embezzlement to usurpation of power. The decision goes partway toward meeting demands by the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe, but the pan-European body is still insisting that additional political prisoners be released or retried. The issue comes at a crucial moment, as Azerbaijan prepares to celebrate the first anniversary of its admission to the council.
Prague, 15 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- For Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev, 25 January will be a red-letter day: the one-year anniversary of his country's admission into the Council of Europe.
But any plans for celebration may prove premature, if the pan-European body decides to issue sanctions against Azerbaijan for failing to improve its poor human rights record.
Last week (8 January), the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), warned that the situation of political prisoners in Azerbaijan may be among the topics discussed later this month at the assembly's winter session. The debate will likely be held on 24 January -- one day before Azerbaijan's anniversary.
The warning follows a report by a member of the assembly's Legal Affairs and Human Rights Committee, Belgian Liberal deputy Georges Clerfayt. The deputy harshly criticized Azerbaijani authorities for jailing their political opponents, a move he says openly violates the basic principle that "there should be no political prisoners in any of the council's country members."
Failure to meet council standards could lead the assembly to issue sanctions against Azerbaijan at its meeting next week. Two years ago, the body temporarily deprived country member Russia of its council voting rights amid reports of human rights abuses in Chechnya.
Like many country newcomers in the Council of Europe, Azerbaijan is currently subject to strict monitoring procedures that will be closed only when substantial progress on human rights and democratization has been made.
Clerfayt's remarks stirred a wave of public outcry in Azerbaijan, where government officials accused the assembly of "blackmailing" their country.
Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe last year along with neighboring Armenia. At the time, both South Caucasus countries committed themselves not only to settling their 13-year-old territorial dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, but also to improving democracy-building and abiding by the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights.
Addressing the council's parliamentary assembly on 25 January 2001, Aliyev claimed that his country had made substantial achievements in the area of human rights.
"At my initiative, 55,000 people have been granted amnesty over the last five years. I have also pardoned about 2,500 prisoners. Among them were prisoners for whom human rights organizations and PACE deputies had made an appeal. On 16 January this year, I have taken the initiative of asking parliament to extend amnesty to an additional 9,000 people. Azerbaijan is reaching the level of European countries in terms of the ratio of convicted persons to the total population."
He continued with the following pledge: "In the future, we will continue to proceed with the commitment of Azerbaijan's people and state to ideals and principles of humanity and philanthropy, values based on democracy, supremacy of law, observance of human rights and basic freedoms."
Despite Aliev's claims that his country is nearing European democratic standards, however, some reports suggest this is far from true.
Alex Anderson is the South Caucasus researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), a nongovernmental group that two years ago urged the Council of Europe not to admit Azerbaijan because the country had made insufficient progress meeting human rights and democratization criteria.
Anderson told RFE/RL that recent developments show Azerbaijan's human rights record has in fact deteriorated even further since Aliev's hoisted his country's flag on the esplanade facing the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly building.
"Particularly since the second half of last year, we've seen a very definite movement backward by the [Azerbaijani] authorities in terms of observance of their human rights obligations, and the situation does appear to have worsened in this year of Azerbaijan's membership of the Council of Europe."
Former prosecutor Chingiz Qanizade chairs the Baku-based Committee for Democracy and Human Rights. He also says the human rights situation has significantly deteriorated over the past few months.
"Since Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe, a new category of prisoners has appeared whom we call 'the Council of Europe's political prisoners.' Among them are residents in [the northern town of] Sheki who took to the streets to protest electoral fraud and to demand better living conditions. Twenty-five of them were arrested. Later, there were similar protests in [the southern district of] Calilabad and, again, dozens of people were arrested. In Baku, relatives of political leaders such as [exiled former parliament speaker] Rasul Guliev are also being arrested on various charges. Not only has the situation not improved, it has gotten worse."
Human rights groups say it is almost impossible to assess with certainty how many political prisoners are currently being held in Azerbaijani jails. Some opposition parties put the number at just a few dozen. But Qanizade claims the number is closer to 200, and European delegate Clerfayt in his report estimates the number of political prisoners in Azerbaijan is "at least 500."
The Baku-based Human Rights Center of Azerbaijan (HRCA) -- a nongovernmental organization run by journalist Eldar Zeynalov -- recently published an updated list of 674 alleged political prisoners believed to remain in custody as of 31 December 2001. HRCA says the list is incomplete, suggesting the actual number could be even higher. Most of the prisoners are held in Qobustan, a high-security prison in eastern Azerbaijan.
The group also says the vast majority of political prisoners were arrested in 1994 and 1995 and tried in closed-door proceedings shortly after Aliyev took over from late President Ebulfaz Elchibey after a coup led by army Colonel Suret Huseynov.
HRCA says that most political prisoners are serving an average 10-year-and-four-month prison sentence, but that 17 of them are serving life terms. The group also claims that some 20 inmates have died in custody, including four in a riot at Qobustan.
In February last year, the Council of Europe's secretary-general, Walter Schwimmer, appointed experts to investigate the situation of political prisoners in Azerbaijan and Armenia.
While those experts concluded that neither of the two Armenian cases they reviewed was politically motivated, in Azerbaijan they came up with a list of 17 former government officials or opposition leaders who they say could be considered political prisoners.
Even though the Azerbaijani authorities last August released six of the 17 prisoners, the council says this is not enough and insists that the remaining 11 be either freed or retried as proof of Azerbaijan's commitment to democracy.
Among those still in custody are former OPON special forces commanders Elchin Amiraslanov and Qalib Abdullaev, former OPON officer Arif Qazymov, former Ganje chief of police Natig Efendiev, former National Security Minister Nariman Imranov, former Prime Minister Suret Huseynov, former Interpol Azerbaijan bureau chief Ilqar Safikhanov, and former army officer Huseynbala Huseynov.
All were convicted on charges ranging from embezzlement to high treason and attempting to overthrow the government. All are serving sentences of between 13 years and life imprisonment.
In an apparent move to appease the Council of Europe, Azerbaijan's Court of Appeals yesterday (14 January) said the case of three other political prisoners -- former Interior Minister Iskander Hamidov, former Deputy Defense Minister and ethnic Talysh separatist leader Alikram Hummatov, and former Defense Minister Rahim Qaziev -- will be reviewed.
However, there has been no indication so far on when the three will appear in court.
Human rights activist Qanizade says he is concerned that when the court appearances are scheduled, they will be held far from public view.
"We were informed that the Court of Appeals would review [the three] cases. However, we were also informed that the trials would be held behind closed doors at Qobustan. That would mean that there will be no public debate and that international observers will not be allowed in. We demand that the trials be open to the public, that they are held in a room that is accessible to everyone and that all information related to these trials be made public."
Qanizade said Azerbaijan's human rights groups were urging Aliyev to order the release of most political prisoners. But he admitted that some disagreement remains on whether people convicted for alleged crimes against state security -- which is the case of nearly all 17 prisoners reviewed by the Council of Europe -- should be released.
"We are currently discussing their cases. Some human rights activists argue that they are guilty and that, therefore, they must bear responsibility for their acts. Others believe that they have already served six or seven years and that they should be released."
The Council of Europe believes that some 220 presumed political inmates have been released since late 1999, including 29 in December. But even these positive developments are regarded with some suspicion by human rights organizations.
As HRW's Anderson said about a group of prisoners released in August last year: "The actual detail of how these people were chosen is interesting. We've come across information that the actual people who were released -- [that] does seem to have happened as a result of a process where officials went around the prisons and more or less decided to release those who were happy to, in effect, confess their own guilt and to express thanks in a very humble way to President Aliyev for this release. Those prisoners who were not prepared to do that did not get released."
Except for the recent decision to retry Hamidov, Hummatov, and Qaziev, Azerbaijani leaders have given no sign that they will meet the Council of Europe's demands. On the contrary, they have responded either by denying that any political prisoners remain in the country, or by describing the council's position as "subjective."
During talks in Baku last month, Clerfayt also demanded that in addition to the eight prisoners mentioned on the council list and who are still in jail, Aliyev show his "goodwill" by releasing five other political prisoners -- including two women -- by 21 January.
Otherwise, Clerfayt warned, PACE will go ahead with its plans to review Azerbaijan's human rights record -- and possibly its status as a council member.