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Azerbaijan Report: August 7, 2002

7 August 2002

Correction: Due to a transcription error, the 2 August Azerbaijan Report incorrectly identified one of the three oil companies guaranteeing SOCAR's loans for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. The three companies are BP, Statoil of Norway, and the U.S.-based Unocal.
NGOs Fight to Monitor Referendum
The Congress of Non-Governmental Organizations has announced that it will bring legal action against the Central Election Commission. The nongovernmental organizations want to monitor voting in the 24 August constitutional referendum and are protesting against the commission's refusal to register them as observers. In a statement issued on 2 August, the congress argued that although the Azerbaijani law on nongovernmental organizations bans them from monitoring elections, the prohibition does not apply to the referendum.

According to the congress, which unites 130 nongovernmental organizations, the commission's refusal to allow them to monitor voting shows that the body intends to forge the results of the referendum.

Congress Chairman Ali Guliev said in an interview with RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service that although the head of state, the commission, and other officials have promised to hold a fair referendum, the NGOs' request to participate in the referendum is not being taken into account. Guliev added that other nongovernmental organizations that are not members of the congress have also received negative responses from the commission.

(Maarif Chingizoglu)

President Expected To Issue Pardons Soon
President Heidar Aliyev may issue a new round of pardons at the beginning of September, the independent newspaper "525" writes, citing Fuad Aleskerov, the chief of the Legal Department of the president's office. Human rights activists, however, expect the decree not in September, but on 18 October, the Day of State Sovereignty. But they say the head of state could also issue pardons earlier, as a present to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe during its autumn session in September, when it will discuss Azerbaijan.

Chingiz Ganizade, the head of the Committee for Democracy and Human Rights, said in an interview with RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service that the timing of the upcoming pardons is also connected with the constitutional referendum that will be held on 24 August. He said that the president will want to divert public attention from what he said would be the falsification of the referendum results. But Ganizade added that, regardless of the purpose of the expected decree, the release of political prisoners, who number more than 250 by his count, must be welcomed.

Gabil Rzaev, the chairman of the Committee for the Protection of OMON Members' Rights, told RFE/RL that the inclusion of names of members of the OMON special forces police unit on a pardon list costs them dearly. He alleged that some members of the presidential pardon commission demand money from OMON members' families to pardon their sons. According to Rzaev, at present about 250 OMON members are serving prison terms in connection with the "March events" of 1995, when members of OMON were involved in an alleged coup against President Aliev.

(Natig Zeinalli)

Religious Leader Asks Clerics to Support Referendum
On 1 August Sheikh Allahshukur Pashazade, the head of the Religious Board of Caucasus Muslims, called on all clerics to support the 24 August referendum on amendments to the constitution. Pashazade described the period since 1993, when President Aliyev came to power, as a period of stability and said that, as a sign of gratitude, clerics would not oppose the upcoming referendum. He asked clerics to vote for the proposed amendments and to explain them to the population.

Neriman Gasimoglu, a commentator on religious affairs, said in an interview with RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service that Pashazade's appeal was in fact an intervention of religion into politics. According to Gasimoglu, clerics of high rank should be careful when commenting on controversial political issues. On the one hand, the intervention of religion into politics can hamper the propagation of religious values among the population, he said, and on the other hand, can be an opportunity for people who want to use religion to suit their own ends. Gasimoglu predicted that the sheikh's appeal would not have a serious influence on clerics' opinion.

Haji Akif Agaev, a deputy chairman of the Religious Board, told RFE/RL that the sheikh's appeal should not be considered an intervention of religion into politics. He said that as citizens, clerics have a right to express their opinion on the issue.

(Natig Zeinalli)

Former Minister's Retrial Postponed
On 1 August the retrial of former Interior Minister Iskander Hamidov was again postponed indefinitely. Hamidov was convicted of plundering state property and abuse of power and began serving a 14-year sentence in 1995.

When Azerbaijan was accepted into the Council of Europe in 2001, one of the commitments was the reconsideration of the cases of Hamidov, former Defense Minister Rahim Gaziev, and separatist Alikram Humbatov, who declared a short-lived independent Talish Mugan Republic in the south of Azerbaijan in 1993.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, Hamidov's lawyer, Vidadi Mahmudov, accused the authorities of hampering the reconsideration of Hamidov's case.

(Natig Zeinalli)

The article "Exercises of Russian navy aimed to put pressure on Iran" in the independent newspaper "Tezadlar" claims that Iran tried hard to participate in the Russian-led exercises in the Caspian Sea. The exercises, which began on 1 August and include Azerbaijani and Kazakh forces, but not Iranian or Turkmen ones, are the largest military show of force in the Caspian since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The independent newspaper "525" writes that PACE Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer wrote to Azerbaijani Minister of Foreign Affairs Vilayat Guliev that the Council of Europe would not acknowledge the results of the 11 August presidential elections in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The pro-governmental newspaper "Azerbaycan" writes in an article entitled "Collapse of opposition propaganda" that the opposition's antigovernment campaign shows that the opposition camp is lacking real bases -- electoral and intellectual -- to conduct an effective propaganda struggle against the current leadership.

Ali Rza in an article entitled "Delicate cease-fire in opposition" in the opposition newspaper "Azadlig" discusses the temporary unification of the opposition in the face of the upcoming referendum on amendments to the constitution. According to Rza, the future of the cooperation between the opposition parties will depend on the goodwill of their leaders. Rza writes that the parties have been much alienated from each other for the last two years and it is now difficult for them to chum up. But normalization of relations within the camp does not demand much effort from the opposition forces. The parties must find strength in themselves and eliminate factors that keep their relations tense, he writes.

Siruz Tebrizli, the chairman of the parliamentary human rights commission, comments in the independent newspaper "Yeni zaman" about the tension in the village of Nardaran, where protests continue after one person was killed in a standoff with police in June. According to Tebrizli, some human rights activists such as Leyla Yunus and Eldar Zeinalov are attempting to use the unrest in the village to suit their own political ends. It would better for Azerbaijan, the author writes, if the activists were helping to solve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The solution of that conflict would promote the settlement of Nardaran and other problems, he argues.

Azer Aihan in a commentary entitled "Dangerous Moscow" in the opposition newspaper "Yeni Musavat" writes that the number of Azerbaijanis killed in Russia is increasing. He points out that President Aliyev accused former President Abulfez Elchibey of escalating tensions with Russia. But first of all, Aihan argues, during the Elchibey presidency, Azeribaijans were not emigrating to Russia and other countries on a large scale. In the second place the Azerbaijanis were not as defenseless and devoid of rights as they are now. The author notes that the killing and humiliation of Azerbaijanis in Russia should be considered to be the result of the "successful internal and foreign policies" of President Aliev.

An official in the Ministry of Work and Social Protection of the Population tells the pro-governmental newspaper "Khalg" that at present some 1.2 million people are receiving pensions or other benefits. (The population of Azerbaijan is just over 8 million, according to statistics released last week.) Azad Guliev, a deputy chairman of the ministry's Department of Social Security, also touches on the measures taken to increase wages, pensions and benefits. He says that 86 billion manats (about $17.7 million) will be allocated from the budget for that purpose.

(Complied and translated by Etibar Rasulov)