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Azerbaijan Report: February 14, 2003

14 February 2003
Presidential Pardon Is Not Sufficient, Say Local Rights Groups
On 11 February President Heydar Aliyev pardoned 116 prisoners on the holiday of Gurban Bayrami (the Muslim day of sacrifice). Nevertheless, local human rights organizations are not satisfied with the list of people pardoned. Hajimurad Sadeddinov, chairman of the Fund for Democratic Development and Protection of Human Rights, told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service that the latest presidential pardon is not enough to soothe the discord regarding the Council of Europe's stand on political prisoners in Azerbaijan. Sadeddinov noted that the majority of the freed prisoners have already served most of their sentences.

Chingiz Ganizade, head of the nongovernmental Committee for Democracy and Human Rights, is also unhappy with the list of released men, adding that names of the most prominent political prisoners were not included on the list. Ganizade said that of the 116 released men, only 88 were arrested for their political activities. Of those, 36 were arrested for activities related Alikram Humbatov's attempt to declare a Talysh Mughan Republic in 1993, while 16 were convicted of engaging in organizing mass disturbances in November 2000 in Sheki. The president also pardoned 28 supporters of the former OMON (special police forces) that rose up against the government in March 1995.

Eighteen peope were arrested for the Sheki events, when the population was protesting the socio-economic situation in the district, Ganizade said. He added that one of them died in prison, and the government decided not to release Tehran Latifov, a prominent Sheki businessman, who provided jobs for the district's population.

From 1995 to date, the president has signed 30 pardon decrees and released 2,899 prisoners. Meanwhile, a legal action has been brought against Gabil Rzaev, the chairman of the Committee for the Protection of OMON Members' Rights, for his statement regarding the presidential pardon. Rzaev appealed to the president and appeared in the media claiming that he had been approached by the parents of some of the OMON prisoners, who complained that the president's pardoning commission had demanded money in exchange for adding their sons' names to the list of people to be pardoned. Immediately afterward, the Public Prosecutor Office's Investigation Department on Serious Crimes filed a legal case against him, charging him with slandering the pardoning commission.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Azerbaijani service, Rzaev said that the department's investigators had called him several times to give testimony over the phone. Later he was invited over the telephone to the Public Prosecutor's Office. Rzaev said that the investigator in charge of the case threatened him and charged him with slandering the pardoning commission's members. Therefore, Rzaev said, he will only go return to the public prosecutor if he receives a written appeal.

The investigator, Seifeddin Abdullaev, would only say that Rzaev went to the media with false information, in order to protect himself.

More than 800 civilians and military men were arrested following the March 1995 coup attempt. According to Rzaev, 200 of them have served their sentences, while more than 100 OMON members have been pardoned since 1999. Nevertheless, 80 OMON members and 126 civilians remain in prison.

(Natig Zeinalli)

PACE Monitoring Group Visits Azerbaijan
On 10 February members of the Monitoring Group of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE)--George Clerfayt, Andreas Gross and Soren Sondergard--arrived in Azerbaijan to get acquainted with the situation of political prisoners and investigate whether the government is fulfilling its commitments to the Council of Europe on the issue. During the visit the PACE representatives held a number of meetings at different levels, visited the hard labor prison in Gobustan and met with several men the Council of Europe has designated as political prisoners.

On 13 February Parliament Speaker Murtuz Aleskerov received the PACE delegation. During the meeting delegation head George Clerfayt said they were concerned about the existence of political prisoners in Azerbaijan. Aleskerov asked the rapporteurs what they meant by the term "political prisoner," adding that although the PACE is interested in the human rights situation in Azerbaijan, it has never been interested in the situation of the 1 million Azerbaijani refugees.

Following the meeting with the parliament speaker the guests met behind closed doors with members of the Azerbaijan delegation to the PACE. During the meeting the participants also discussed political prisoners. Parliament deputy Gulamhusein Alibeili, who participated in the meeting, said in an interview with RFE/RL's Azerbaijani service that the rapporteurs appreciated the release of a number of prisoners who had been arrested for their political activities. But at the same time the delegation said that it was not a complete solution to the problem, and the Azerbaijani government should make more serious steps in this direction. According to the PACE delegation, the number of political prisoners in Azerbaijan exceeds 200.

The PACE rapporteurs also met with the leaders of leading opposition parties, including Musavat, People's Front [reformist AXCP fraction], Democrat [ADP] and National Independence [AMIP] parties. ADP Secretary-General Serdar Jelaloglu told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani service that the meeting discussed political prisoners. The parties' leaders also raised the issue of Azerbaijani citizens who are forced to live abroad because of their political views and are barred from returning to the motherland.

(Maarif Chingizoglu)

Azerbaijani newspapers continue discussing how a war against Iraq would impact Azerbaijan.

According to the independent Russian-language newspaper "Zerkalo," an agreement on economic cooperation between Azerbaijan and Egypt is expected to be signed in the near future. Ferhad Aliev, minister for economic development, said that all the necessary documents have been agreed with the Egyptian side.

Isa Gambar, chairman of the opposition Musavat Party, said in an interview with the Russian-language newspaper "Ekho" that neither his party nor the Democratic Congress, a collection of leading opposition parties, will refuse to participate in the presidential elections. Gambar noted that the people are ready for democratic elections. But it is the government that is preventing it.

Under the headline "The wish of the PACE representatives and Azerbaijan is the same," the governmental newspaper "Azerbaycan" notes that works in the sphere of democratic development and human rights protection suits both sides.

Political scientist Vafa Guluzade said in an interview with the independent newspaper "Ayna" that Armenia has conducted ethnic cleaning against Azerbaijanis living in its territories. Therefore, Armenians living in Azerbaijan must not be given even cultural autonomy.

Under the headline "The Presidential Election Campaign in Armenia is accompanied by terror acts," the governmental newspaper "Khalg" writes that less than a week remains until the presidential vote in Armenia. Unexpected events can happen during this period. In fact, it is meaningless to expect a different attitude from Armenians, who have chosen terrorism as their method for political struggle.

Political scientist Khaleddin Ibrahimli in an interview with the opposition newspaper "Azadlig" noted that a war against Iraq would exert a direct and indirect influence on Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan has not been isolated from the global processes. Saddam Husein is a leader who do not correspond to "world standards," Ibrahimli said, adding that if Saddam is driven into a corner, he could use all weapons available in his arsenal, including nuclear ones. It is the last test for Saddam. He is no longer interested in his political future. Using chemical, biological or nuclear weapons will have a direct influence on Azerbaijan. On the other hand, this war would make the Gabala radiolocation station work at full capacities, which could increase ecological damage to the population living in neighboring areas to the station, Ibrahimli concluded.

According to Zerdusht Alizade, co-chairman of the Social-Democrat Party (ASDP), the beginning of a war will bring about a sharp fall in world oil prices. This issue is urgent for us, since the Azerbaijani economy is an oil-based one, Alizade said.

Under the headline "2,021 Azerbaijani citizens went to Moscow in January 2003," the pro-governmental newspaper "Yeni Azerbaycan" cites Victor Cherkashin, deputy chairman of Moscow's Main Police Office, as saying that there will not be a massive deportation of Azerbaijanis from Russia. "But Azerbaijanis must also respect Russia's laws just like any foreigner." Cherkashin noted that since there is no visa regime between Azerbaijan and the Russian Federation, Azerbaijani citizens, after arriving to Russia, must apply for three-month migrant cards and register with official bodies. These rules concern all foreign citizens. Cherkashin also pointed out that under official statistics, in January this year 2,021 Azerbaijani citizens went to Moscow, while 14 were expelled for violating the law.

Azer Aihan in an article entitled "Surprises of the election year" in the opposition newspaper "Yeni Musavat" writes that relations between the government and the citizens of Azerbaijan are in a dangerous state. At every step people face problems and artificial obstacles, which the government has created. The abundance of social problems has been squeezing Azerbaijan for a long time. Those who protest against this situation are punished. Aihan notes that the government's relations with the political opposition are also bad. There is still no mutual understanding and agreement between the opposition and the authorities. The reason is natural enough, because the current government has played a great role in removing the old ruling power, which is today's opposition. Therefore, the opposition refuses to acknowledge Aliyev as a legitimate president. President Aliyev does not accept the opposition's political legitimacy. This is the chief factor that prevents any government-opposition dialogue. "It will be interesting to observe the government's position on the eve of the presidential elections. Because the West endeavors to ensure a democratic election. This can be felt even now. Statements from the West mean much. Some people even look to them to see to the end of an autocratic regime," Aihan writes.

George Clerfayt, a member of the Monitoring Group of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe [PACE], said in an interview with the newspaper "Zerkalo" that the Azerbaijani parliament has adopted a number of laws. But the mechanism for their implementation is too weak. Touching on the accusation of Murtuz Aleskerov, parliament chairman, that the PACE takes a biased stand toward Azerbaijan, the PACE representative noted with regret that the television aired Aleskerov's comment but not Clerfayt's response. Asked "What do you expect from the upcoming presidential elections in Azerbaijan?" Clerfayt said that he would not like to be pessimistic. Of course, it is meaningless to talk about democracy in a country where there are political prisoners. "But I hope that old problems will sooner or later find their solution," Clerfayt concluded.

Shahbaz Shamioglu in the article "Desire for the presidency" in the independent newspaper "Uch Nogta" notes that the upcoming presidential election has thrown political life of Azerbaijan into confusion. The presidential candidate from the ruling camp has been clear from the beginning; therefore, members of this camp are engaged in their work. But within the opposition confusion reigns. The opposition parties cannot come to agreement on a common candidate. The idea of a common candidate has become a football game. A ball is driven here and there but is not kicked into the goal. Shamioglu writes that all citizens have the right to contend for the presidential post within the framework of the Constitution and legislation. But it does not mean that everyone, who comes of age, is obliged to climb to power. It is abnormal that in a country with a population of eight million 10-15 men lay claim to the presidency simultaneously. "Since Azerbaijan is a small country, everybody knows each other well here, so it is sufficient to look at the names of the candidates to understand their purpose in participating in the elections."

(Compiled and translated by Etibar Rasulov)