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Azerbaijan Report: March 1, 2004

1 March 2004
U.S. State Department: "The Government Continues To Restrict Citizens' Ability To Change Their Government By Peaceful Means"
"The Azeri government's human rights record in 2003 remained poor, and it continued to commit numerous serious abuses," according to U.S. State Administration's report on human rights throughout the world in 2003. "The government continued to restrict citizens' ability to change their government peacefully. Law enforcement officers killed one person at a post-election demonstration on 16 October that turned violent. Police tortured and beat persons in custody, including several opposition members, and used excessive force to extract confessions� After the election, authorities conducted a wave of politically motivated detentions and arrests of more that 700 election officials, opposition members, and journalists; more than 100 remained in custody at year's end."

"The government continued to affirm its commitment to develop a market economy, but economic reform continued to be slow," the report continues. According to official figures, the population was approximately 8 million, of which an estimated 2 million lived and worked abroad. Widespread corruption and patronage reduced competition, and the slow pace of reform limited development outside the oil and gas sector, which accounted for more than 90 percent of export revenues. Poverty nationwide has decreased, but 49 percent of the population still lived below the poverty level. Estimates of unemployment ranged from 15 to 20 percent.

The report reads that "there were credible reports that security forces continued to torture inmates and excessive to extract confessions. Conditions in prisons remained harsh and sometimes life threatening. Overcrowding and poor medical care combined to make the spread of infectious diseases a serious problem. Tuberculosis continued to be the primary case of death in prisons." Prisoners' families generally were required to give bribes to gain access to imprisoned relatives. At the same time "during the year the government undertook a program to improve conditions in prisons and remodeled some and built five new prisons."

"Arbitrary arrest and detention were problems," the report continues. And "in most cases, the authorities took no action to punish abusers. The government did not arrest and announce the findings of an investigation of police in connection with violent disturbances in Baku on October 15 and 16. Low wages throughout the police and law enforcement bodies contributed to the general problem of police corruption. Authorities often arbitrarily arrested and detained persons without legal warrant. Opposition party members and their families were more likely to experience arbitrary arrests and detention than other citizens. The Constitution provides for access to a lawyer from the time of detention; however, access to lawyers was poor, particular outside Baku. Police forcibly disrupted unsanctioned protests and detained participants, opposition activists and journalists after several demonstrations during the year."

According to the U.S. State Department report, although the legislation provides for an independent judiciary, "in practice, courts did not function independently of the executive branch, and judiciary was widely believed to be corrupt and inefficient. Qualifying exams for judges were administered periodically as part of a judicial reform effort; however, credible allegations persisted that Judgeships were bought and sold. Low salaries for judges and lawyers increased the incentives for bribe taking and undermined the rule of law� The government continued to hold a number of political prisoners."

"The Constitution prohibits arbitrary invasions of privacy; however, the authorities restricted privacy rights in practice." The Ministry of National Security and other security entities are widely believed to monitor telephones and Internet traffic, particularly those of foreigners and prominent political and business figures. Authorities often conducted searches without warrants, particularly after the October presidential elections.

With regard to freedom of speech and press, the report found that in 2003 "the government harassed and attacked the media, mainly in the run-up and aftermath of the October presidential election. Most newspapers were printed in state publishing houses, and government associates owned many of the private publishing houses." The government continued to exert economic pressure on opposition papers. Independent newspaper distributing firms reported continued government harassment. Violence against media representatives continued during the year. The Committee for the Protection of Journalists (RUH) reported more than 170 incidents of physical attacks and harassment against journalists during the year.

The report documented several facts of violation of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. "Authorities occasionally prevented political parties critical of the government from conducting indoor meetings as well as outdoor gatherings. Local authorities in the regions frequently prevented opposition parties from holding rallies in central locations."

As regards freedom of religion, the report noted that on December 1, police detained Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, head of the Baku Chapter of the International Religious Liberty Association, in connection with the post-election disturbances. He was charged with organizing violence and resisting or using violence against representatives of the authorities. "Some officials at times discriminated against members of minority religions and harassed nontraditional religious groups. In many instances, abuses by officials reflected the popular prejudice against conversion to Christianity and other nontraditional religions," the report adds. "Some local officials continued to prevent Muslim women from wearing headscarves, and the International Religious Liberty Association reported that women were still prohibited from wearing them in identification and passport photos, which complicated voter registration."

According to the report, "the government continued to restrict citizens' ability to change their government by peaceful means by interfering in local and national elections. The October 15 presidential election failed to meet international standards due to a number of serious irregularities." The candidate registration process was flawed; access to state media was unequal and the opposition was harassed. "NGOs receiving foreign assistance were barred from observing, in contrast to the 1998 presidential election, and some observers reported harassment and impediments to observing the process." Nevertheless, "there were some improvements in the October election, including the new unified election code, a multiparty choice for voters, and technical improvements that made fraud difficult to hide."

At the end, the report cites the International Migration Organization (IOM) that says that during the year Azerbaijan remained to be a country of origin and a transit point for trafficked women, men and children. "There was no evidence of government complicity in the facilitation of the trafficking of persons; however, NGOs suspected that low-level servants accepted bribes from traffickers in exchange for overlooking to their activities."

Local authorities, opposition parties and human rights activists differ in their opinion of the report. Opposition parties and human rights organizations appreciate the report and say that it accurately reflects human rights problems. However, the authorities and called it "biased," adding that minor shortcomings in the area of human rights have been exaggerated.

(Samira Gazieva and Kebiran Dilaverli)

PACE and EU Seek Greater Involvement In Conflict Resolution In South Caucasus
The visit of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) rapporteur on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Terry Davis, to the region, particularly to Baku, has aroused a degree of optimism about a swift solution to the protracted dispute. Journalists' first question to Terry Davis upon his arrival in Baku was why he travelled to the separatist Nagorno-Karabakh region via Armenia, not Baku. Davis said that he chose this route because of the security of the delegation members. Regardless of the route of the visit to Karabakh, the essence of the issue does not change.

Davis said that his goal is not to substitute for the OSCE Minsk Group, but to prepare a report on what "is being done to settle the conflict." He said that his report could not be direct grounds for resolving the conflict. It is the OSCE Minsk Group that is engaged in a peaceful regulation of the problem. Davis said he hopes his report will focus the world community's attention on this problem and thus accelerate a peace settlement.

On 26 February the European Parliament adopted a report on the South Caucasus calling on the neighbors of the three Caucasus countries-specifically Turkey and Russia�to play a more constructive role in promoting appeasement of the region's so-called "frozen conflicts." The EU must exert pressure to force Moscow and Ankara to help resolve conflicts involving the South Caucasus countries. Turkey is also required to establish "good neighborly relations" with Armenia in accordance with its EU candidate status.

Furthermore, the report urges the European Union to reinforce its ties with this region. It asks the EU to contribute more aid, take steps to establish free trade, better coordinate its involvement in the region and extend the powers of its special representative to the South Caucasus.

Nevertheless, Chris Patten, EU Commissioner for external relations, said that the bloc is not prepared to play an active mediating role. "On the issue of conflict resolution and reconciliation, the European Commission continues to provide its full support to the OSCE and the United Nations in their efforts to resolve the region's 'frozen conflicts'� We stand ready to assist post-conflict reconstruction following peace settlements or to assist measures agreed between the parties to the conflict," Patten said.

Swedish parliamentarian Per Garton, the report's author, suggested in his accompanying note that Armenia has carried out "ethnic cleansing" around Nagorno-Karabakh. However, after protracted debates European deputies removed from the report the recommendation on the liberation of five regions outside Nagorno-Karabakh in exchange of the opening of the Baku-Nakhichevan-Yerevan railway.

(Natig Zeinalov and Ahto Lobjakas)

Can The Number Of Political Prisoners Increase?
"At present there are 185 political prisoner in Azerbaijan and if the concern over legal proceedings into the 15-16 October mass riots comes true, this figure will increase many times," according to Leila Yunus, director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy. Touching on the U.S. State Department report on the human rights situation, Yunus said at a press conference that if the government does not solve the political prisoner issue once and for all, it will always come in for criticism from international institutions.

Meanwhile, experts disagree over whether there are political prisoners in Azerbaijan and if so, how many. Some human rights organizations say that the current number of political prisoners does not exceed 103. All this proves, some experts suggest, that the term "political prisoner" still needs to be precisely defined.

There are no political prisoners at all in Azerbaijan, according to Malahat Hasanova. a parliament deputy from the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party (YAP). The release of persons considered to be political prisoners depends on the country's legislation, not the desire of human rights defenders or international institutions, Hasanova said.

(Babek Bekir) (Compiled and translated by Etibar Rasulov)