The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has awarded its annual Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize to jailed Azerbaijani human rights activist Anar Mammadli.
Mammadli was chosen over two other finalists: Israel's B'tselem, which defends the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians, and the Malta Branch of the international Jesuit Refugee Service, a group that defends the rights of asylum seekers.
The $79,000 prize, now in its second year, aims to reward outstanding civil sociey action in the defense of human rights.
Mammadli's prize was accepted on his behalf by his father as the activist serves a 5 1/2 year prison term, which began in May.
Anar says that although the movement for human rights has been weakened in [Azerbaijan], there is no other option but to continue on this path."-- Asaf Mammadov
Mammadli's father, Asaf Mammadov, relayed a message to the PACE assembly from his son, saying, "Anar says that this prize constitutes a big boost of moral strength and a show of solidarity not just for him and the organization of which he is a member, but to all currently detained right defenders.
"Anar would like to assure his colleagues and Europe that the latest wave of political repressions will not undermine the believe in the victory of human rights shared by him and other political prisoners. Anar says that although the movement for human rights has been weakened in [Azerbaijan], there is no other option but to continue on this path."
Mammadli is founder of the Baku-based Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center (EMDS), which promotes democratic institutions and civil and political rights.
He was imprisoned on charges of illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, and abuse of official authority with grave consequences in a trial widely seen as a reaction to EMDS's critical assessment of Azerbaijan's presidential election in 2013.
In the 2013 poll, which was marred by claims of irregularities, incumbent President Ilham Aliyev won more than 84 percent of the vote, while the leading opposition candidate received just over 5 percent.
In the same trial, Mammadli's deputy, Bashir Suleymanli, was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in jail.
Another defendant, the head of the Public Association for International Cooperation of Volunteers, Elnur Mammadov, was given 3 1/2 years with two years on probation.
The Berlin-based European Stability Initiative think tank called the decision by the jury for the prize a "good, just, and even courageous decision," saying that it also highlights a "dramatic failure by the very institution on whose behalf this prize is awarded, the Council of Europe."
In a statement, the group noted that the Council of Europe's committee of ministers is currently chaired by Azerbaijan.
The European Stability Initiative called on the Council of Europe to take immediate action to boycott or suspend all activities by Azerbaijan's chairmanship until Mammadi is released.
what the Havel prize for jailed Azeri hero Anar Mammadli,says about the useless cowardly Council of Europe http://t.co/bYXedZISWh— Edward Lucas (@edwardlucas) September 29, 2014
It also called on the secretary general of the Council of Europe to immediately appoint a panel of respected European judges to look at the list of political prisoners in Baku and report on the problem of systemic arrests of critics in Azerbaijan.
It also said the Committee of Ministers should sternly warn Azerbaijan about its treatment of prisoners and demand full cooperation with international monitors -- including full access for outsiders to visit prisoners in order to investigate "serious allegations of abuse."
There were a total of 56 candidates for the Havel prize this year, reduced to a shortlist of three competitors last month.
The selection panel determined the final winner on September 28 but delayed the announcement until September 29 to coincide with a meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly in Strasbourg.
The 2013 prize went to Belarusian human rights activist Ales Byalyatski.