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Azerbaijan: Baku Under Fire In Run-Up To First Elections Since Joining Council Of Europe

Members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) are due in Azerbaijan on 14 September to assess preparations for the 15 October presidential polls. The elections will be the first held in Azerbaijan since it joined the Council of Europe in January 2001. The visit takes place as Baku is coming under increased criticism for failing to fulfill the legal and human rights pledges it made nearly three years ago.

Prague, 12 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The European delegation, comprising members of each of PACE's political groups, is expected to meet Azerbaijan's main presidential contenders, election officials and representatives of the judiciary. Its agenda also includes talks with journalists and nongovernmental organizations.

The European envoys will not be able to meet President Heidar Aliev, who is undergoing medical treatment in the United States. Aliyev has been absent from Azerbaijan for several months and has been unable to campaign for re-election. It is still unclear whether he will be able to return to Baku in time for the vote.

The delegation is headed by Swiss parliamentarian Andreas Gross, a member of the Parliamentary Assembly's political affairs committee and a co-rapporteur for the monitoring of Azerbaijan. Gross tells RFE/RL that he and his colleagues are determined to address a number of urgent issues with Azerbaijani authorities.

"There is a great many matters of concern [to us] ahead of the elections," Gross said. "The most important ones are that the opposition feels excluded from the [election] process. There is no open and free dialogue among the different [components of the political stage], and there is no free press where all different [political] programs could be [debated]. With regards to the [main] candidates, there is no transparency because the president -- although he is a candidate -- is not there to campaign. So there is a great many things which are very puzzling."

The PACE delegation's four-day visit comes just after experts from the Council of Europe's Council of Ministers strongly criticized Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia for failing to fulfill pledges made when they joined the Strasbourg-based assembly nearly three years ago.

Despite the unsolved conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, poor human rights records, and restrictive legislations inherited from the Soviet Union, Armenia and Azerbaijan both joined the European body in January 2001. The Council of Europe believed then that admitting the two rival nations would help them reach a peace agreement and bolster democratic reforms.

The Council of Europe soon became disenchanted, however.

In a report released last week (4 September), the monitoring committee of the Council of Europe's Council of Ministers said that, although mediated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), there has been "no progress whatsoever" toward a peaceful settlement of the Karabakh dispute. With regards to democratic reforms, European experts note that, in both countries, "progress has been halted for almost 18 months."

If Armenia earlier this week (9 September) met one of the main European demands by scrapping the death penalty, Azerbaijan remains way behind the assembly's expectations.

Tension is running high in Baku on the eve of the presidential polls, with authorities stepping up pressure on opposition parties and media outlets.

On 10 September, Walter Schwimmer, the secretary-general of the Council of Europe, and Freimut Duve, the OSCE representative on freedom of the media, expressed joint concerns at reports regarding intimidation of opposition and independent media in Azerbaijan.

Violence and harassment against journalists are also denounced by experts of the Council of Europe's Council of Ministers, who note in their report that some newspapers have been given hefty fines or suspended in the run-up to the elections.

Of particular concern to Europeans is the fate of dozens of political opponents they say Aliev's regime is holding in custody.

Experts from the Council of Europe's Council of Ministers says Azerbaijani authorities have been warned that the issue of political prisoners "could give rise to a serious crisis with the Strasbourg-based assembly and that it was absolutely imperative that substantive progress be made."

The Azerbaijani leadership has always denied holding political prisoners, saying all people considered as such by human rights groups were mere "criminals." In addition, it claims more than 3,000 convicts have been amnestied since 1995, including a number of people involved in attempted coups.

Yet, the Council of Europe insists that more than 300 people remain in jail for their opposition to Aliev's regime.

Eldar Zeynalov is director of the Human Rights Center of Azerbaijan, or HRCA, a Baku-based nongovernmental organization that has been working closely with experts appointed by the Council of Europe's secretary-general to sort out the issue of political prisoners. He says that although many of Aliev's opponents have benefited from presidential pardons, new political prisoners have appeared in recent years.

"Out of the list of 716 names I presented [four years ago] and which the Council of Europe accepted [as a basis for discussions with Azerbaijani authorities], about 530 people have been released," Zeynalov said. "Some have been freed after serving their sentences. Others -- the most part -- have been amnestied. Today, there remain less than 200 names from the initial list. But, at the same time, 130 new names have appeared in the past two-and-a-half years. Among these people, some 60 were arrested after Azerbaijan entered the Council of Europe. We are speaking here only of those people we are sure meet the criteria set up by experts of the Council of Europe [defining] political prisoners."

Yielding to pressure exerted by Strasbourg, Azerbaijan earlier this year agreed to retry three of its most famous political prisoners -- former Interior Minister Iskander Hamidov, former Deputy Defense Minister and ethnic Talysh separatist leader Alikram Hummatov, and former Defense Minister Rahim Qaziev.

All three were first tried after Aliyev seized power in 1993. Hamidov was sentenced to 14 years in jail on charges on abuse of power and misappropriation of state funds. The other two were initially sentenced to death on similar accusations -- augmented with charges of high treason in the case of Qaziev -- but their sentences were later commuted to life imprisonment.

As a result of the new hearings, Hummatov was reconvicted with life imprisonment and Hamidov was given a reduced 11-year jail sentence. Qaziev's trial is still ongoing.

The Council of Europe believes none of these retrials met international human rights standards and insists the three men must be released immediately.

Reports that PACE released on 1 September had recommended to postpone once again a debate on Azerbaijani political prisoners until after the elections -- instead of in September as originally planned -- disappointed many rights activists in Baku. HRCA Director Zeynalov:

"Europe is [anxiously] waiting for the outcome of the elections. Knowing that, our leaders are blackmailing the Council of Europe and are saying that, if the issue of political prisoners is debated and Azerbaijan is sanctioned before the elections, then [they] will not cooperate with the Council of Europe in monitoring the polls."

PACE delegate Gross denies any possible bargain between the Council of Europe and Azerbaijan. The Swiss parliamentarian confirms that the assembly's committee on legal affairs and human rights recommended postponing the debate on Azerbaijan's political prisoners until January. But he insists the issue will be examined at the assembly's autumn session later this month (25 September-2 October) as part of a broader debate on democratic reforms in all three southern Caucasus states, including Armenia and Georgia.

"The [PACE] monitoring committee [on 10 September] decided to back a proposition made by several members of the presidency of the Council of Europe to have an urgent debate on the functioning of democratic institutions in all three southern Caucasus republics. We do not want to have a debate only on political prisoners [that] could be misused against Azerbaijan. [Issues related to political prisoners in Azerbaijan] will be considered in September. But they will not be the only ones, this is the point."

Despite all its apparent shortcomings, Azerbaijani civic society groups believe the Council of Europe has had a positive -- though limited -- influence on the human-rights situation in Azerbaijan.

They point out that, without pressures exerted by Strasbourg, Aliev's regime would probably not have pardoned so many convicts -- including a number of presumed political prisoners. They also say Azerbaijan's entry into the European assembly has paved the way for a string of legal reforms aimed at bringing national legislation into line with democratic standards.

Yet, as Zeynalov maintains, many of these reforms remain only on paper: "We are voting a great number of laws, but they are not being implemented. For example, since the referendum that was conducted in August of last year, every citizen now has the right to appeal to the Constitutional Court. I myself lodged an appeal. The answer I got was that, yes, I had the right to appeal, but that since the new law on the Constitutional Court had not been voted, my appeal could not be considered. We have been granted rights, but there is no mechanism that would ensure that they are being implemented. And this is the case for many, many issues."

In Zeynalov's words, the legal changes that have taken place in Azerbaijan since January 2001 are "quantitative, not qualitative."

He continues: "It is as if someone had put more meat in a dog's bowl but -- at the same time -- pushed the bowl one meter away from the dog. In other words, it looks is if today there is democracy [in Azerbaijan], but we have no more access to democracy [than we had in the past]."

Asked to assess progress made by Azerbaijan since it joined the Council of Europe, Gross says he prefers to concentrate on the work that remains to be done, rather than to look back.

"I do not like to make comparisons between 'bad' and 'worse'," he says.