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Azerbaijan Report: March 22, 2004

22 March 2004
Does Ilham Aliev Want National Reconciliation?
On 17 March President Ilham Aliyev signed a pardon decree, releasing a total of 129 prisoners from serving their remaining sentence. Among those pardoned are former Prime Minister Suret Huseinov and former members of the now defunct OMON (special purpose police group). Forty-two of the released persons were sentenced for participation in crimes against the independence, territorial integrity and state power of the country, while four were arrested on a charge of planning to kill former President Heidar Aliyev. This is Ilham Aliyev's second pardoning decree; last December he ordered the release of 160 convicts.

Surat Huseinov was arrested on a charge of an attempted coup in October 1994 and in 1999 was sentenced to life imprisonment. Answering journalists' questions when leaving prison, Huseinov did not rule out a political comeback.

The recent pardoning decree is very important and merits high evaluation, said Rena Sadeddinova, deputy chairman of the Foundation for Democratic Development and Human Rights, Turan news agency reported. She noted that the persons pardoned included well-known political prisoners, including Huseinov. Many of the pardoned prisoners figured on the list of 716 political prisoners submitted to the Council of Europe. At the same time the decree does not completely solve the problem of political convicts. The remaining 86 political prisoners must be released as well, Sadeddinova said.

Council of Europe Secretary General Walter Schwimmer has warmly welcomed President Aliyev's decision to release or re-try all individuals considered to be political prisoners by the Council of Europe�s independent experts, Azertag official news agency reported. "This is a significant step towards democratic progress and fulfillment of commitments undertaken by the country when it acceded to the Council of Europe. I commend the president for this courageous gesture of reconciliation, which demonstrated the government's willingness to solve such problem�one which should not exist in a Council of Europe member state," said Schwimmer.He recalled that there are a number of cases of individuals whose names are not included in the list of alleged political prisoners examined by the independent experts. Schwimmer called on the Azerbaijani authorities to give urgent attention to these cases, which should be treated in the same spirit of reconciliation.

"The United States welcomes the news that President Ilham Aliyev pardoned and released 129 prisoners," said U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli at an 18 March press briefing. "Twenty-six of these individuals had been identified as political prisoners by the Council of Europe, including former Prime Minister Surat Huseinov. We applaud this step." At the same time, the State Department urges the Azeri government "to make more progress on human rights, including the resolution of the cases of those still in custody following the October 15-16 post-election demonstrations."

Nevertheless, local experts differ in their attitude toward the latest pardon decree. Some regard this decree as an endeavor for national unity, suggesting that Ilham Aliyev is seeking to remove the present discontent through pardoning those detained during his father's rule and thus to create an atmosphere of reconciliation in the society. Others assess this as a forced measure, claiming that President Aliyev signed the decree under pressure from the Council of Europe. The Council of Europe has granted Baku additional time to solve the political prisoner issue once and for all.

Gultekin Hajieva, a member of the Azerbaijani delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), described the president's decree as a step toward national reconciliation. And the problem of political prisoners is likely to be solved forever in the near future. This issue may be finished even before the expiry of the term set by the Council of Europe, she said, as the delegation intends to focus mainly on the solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh problem.

But Zafar Guliev of the Turan news agency doubts that the new Azerbaijani leadership is inclined to reconciliation. The names in the decree prove that this step was made under pressure. Guliev said that if there were indeed willingness toward a truce, this would be felt in other areas as well. In other words, the government would agree to negotiations with the opposition and change its attitude toward those arrested following the October events. At present, Guliev notes, everything depends on international organizations. If they remain principled till the end, the authorities will be forced to solve the problem. But generally the authorities seem unwilling to do this.

Expert Nazim Imanov suggests that the presidential decree should be considered both as a move towards national reconciliation and as pressure from the Council of Europe. But despite President Aliyev's statements that he will follow his father's course and that internal policy will not undergo serious changes, that is not so, of course. Some changes are inevitable and these amendments are taking place slowly but surely, Imanov concluded.

(Shahnaz Beilergizi)

OSCE Tries To Galvanize Negotiation Process
"We are now seeking to liven up the dialogue between Baku and Yerevan," said OSCE chairman-in-office, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Passy, summarizing the results of his 15-16 March.visit to Baku. The dialogue must be resumed and without laying down prior conditions.

The issue of democracy was also discussed during the meeting with local authorities, along with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. According to Passy, the organization that he represents watches closely the trial of the people arrested following the post-election clashes. He said that he raised this question during the meeting with the president and Ilham Aliev assured him that the cases will be examined fairly and the decisions will be within the law.

Passy noted that at present the OSCE has focused on the upcoming local municipal elections. He said that they want these elections to be held transparently and they are ready to provide the necessary support for this. And they delivered this message to the Azeri authorities during the meeting.

(Rovshen Ganbarov)

Newspaper Editors Appeal To Foreign Ambassadors For Rescue
The problems of the country's opposition press have again gained urgency after the authorities initiated the collection of fines from suits brought against leading opposition newspapers. According to Ganimat Zahidov, editor-in-chief of the opposition newspaper "Azadlig," the execution of the court rulings obliging newspapers to pay off all fines at once could lead to their closure. At a 17 March sitting, newspaper editors decided to meet with foreign ambassadors as well as with representatives of international institutions and explain the situation to them. The demand to pay off all fines at once is a step of political nature, Zahidov urged, considering that these fines were not required to be paid for some years.

Another opposition newspaper, "Yeni Musavat," is at the brink of ceasing publication, according to the newspaper's deputy editor Gabil Abbasoglu. He said that its difficulties stem from the sentences of fines against the newspaper, totaling some 150 million manats ($30,000). Abbasoglu noted that the newspaper�s circulation dropped from 20,000-30,000 copies before the presidential elections to 10,000 now.

Meanwhile, the newspaper's editorial staff has suspended a hunger strike they began on 16 March, demanding the authorities remove the frezze on the paper's bank accounts imposed to direct them to the payment of fines and create normal working condition. The decision to stop the action was taken at the request of chief editor Rauf Arifoglu, who is now kept in imprisonment on charge of organizing of 15-16 October clashes, Turan news agency reported.

(Natig Zeinalov and Zhale Mutallimova)

Working Group On Caspian Legal Status Reaches Agreement On Some Issues
"The negotiation process over the Caspian legal regime can be described as positive," said Azerbaijan's Deputy Foreign minister Khalaf Khalafov, commenting on the results of a 16-17 March sitting in Baku of the special working group on development of the Caspian legal status convention at the level of littoral states' deputy foreign ministers. The parties agreed several articles of the convention, but several disputed points still remain, he said. Khalafov recalled that a meeting of Caspian littoral states' foreign ministers is scheduled for April 5-6 in Moscow, calling it good opportunity to iron out the remaining contradictions.

Iranian special representative for the Caspian basin Mehti Safari said that Iran's position on the Caspian legal statues has not changed. He said that Iran does not protest against the median line principle of the division promoted by Moscow, Astana and Baku, but this principle must not go beyond the scope of international law. He acknowledged the existence of certain discords regarding the convention. He noted that Tehran would not recognize two- and three-sided agreements on the Caspian division, adding that such agreements hinder the achievement of a common five-sided agreement.

"Russia is opposed to suggestions put forward by some Caspian states calling for the region to be demilitarized," said Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Viktor Kalyuzhny, who is also the Russian president's special envoy on Caspian affairs, at a session of the Caspian Business Integration Club in Baku. According to him, "demilitarization may be possible in 10, 20 or 30 years. But I think it is wrong to speak about demilitarizing the Caspian region now, given remaining tensions and the presence of U.S. bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan," Interfax reported.

Kalyuzhny also criticized U.S. plans to help some Caspian states ensure regional security. "Caspian problems can be resolved by the littoral states themselves, as they are sovereign, independent, have growing economies and are recognized worldwide," he said.

(Kebiran Dilaverli) (Compiled and translated by Etibar Rasulov)