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Vote On Political Prisoners Highlights Azerbaijan's Attempts To 'Silence' PACE

The Council Of Europe's headquarters in Strasbourg, France
The Council Of Europe's headquarters in Strasbourg, France
It was a rare battle of wills at PACE, the Council of Europe's usually humdrum parliamentary assembly.

Parliamentarians on October 3 turned up en masse to the assembly, based in the French city of Strasbourg, to vote on a resolution that formally defines the term 'political prisoner."

The seemingly innocuous resolution, which narrowly passed, will in fact facilitate PACE investigations of rights abuses in member states, particularly in increasingly authoritarian Azerbaijan.

Advocates of the resolution say the vote highlights an unsettling campaign by Azerbaijan to undermine PACE's mandate and derail efforts to scrutinize the oil-rich South Caucasus country's poor human rights record.

"You couldn't take a single step in the cafeteria and within the building without seeing Azerbaijanis or members of Azerbaijan's lobbying groups," says Viola von Cramon, a PACE member who actively backed the text on political prisoners. "There was heavy, heavy lobbying going on. This was something we had never faced on that scale."

Showering Gifts

While lobbying activities are permitted within PACE, Azerbaijan is also accused of buying off parliamentarians.

The European Stability Initiative (ESI), an independent research institute based in Berlin, has detailed efforts by Azerbaijani delegates to promote Baku's interests in PACE by showering parliamentarians with generous gifts and trips to Azerbaijan.

The group published its findings in a May report titled "Caviar Diplomacy, How Azerbaijan Silenced the Council of Europe."

"There has been a very conscious strategy of systematically inviting large numbers of parliamentary assembly members to various events in Azerbaijan," says ESI's director Gerald Knaus. "There has been a policy of gift-making. There has also, of course, been legitimate political lobbying. The end result has been a disastrous abrogation of the Council of Europe's core mandate, which is to criticize member states if they don't fulfill their obligations."

Knaus, Von Cramon, and others say Azerbaijan's aggressive lobbying is threatening PACE and undermining its credibility.

Baku has actively rallied parliamentarians from Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, and other countries to form what some observers see as an antidemocratic front within PACE.

So far, it has largely succeeded in preventing the Council of Europe from investigating widely reported instances of political repression in Azerbaijan.

Major Victory

Baku's delegation to PACE this week unsuccessfully sought to pass an amendment to the text on political prisoners naming the European Court of Human Rights as the only institution entitled to rule on political prisoners, which would have made PACE toothless on the issue.

German parliamentarian Christoph Straesser, PACE's special rapporteur on political prisoners in Azerbaijan and the man behind the resolution, denounced attempts to "sabotage" his bill and the accompanying report reiterating the Council of Europe's concerns over the imprisonment of dissidents in Azerbaijan.
PACE rapporteur Christoph Straesser
PACE rapporteur Christoph Straesser

Straesser has been barred from entering the country for a fact-finding mission since his appointment in 2009.

"On the basis of this resolution, I now expect to obtain a visa to Azerbaijan, he said following vote on October 3."One of the reasons not to invite me was that there was no definition for the term 'political prisoner' and that it was therefore not necessary to invite me and to talk to me."

The text's adoption this week marks a major victory for those in PACE who want to see Azerbaijan brought to account for rights abuses.

It is also hailed as a watershed by rights campaigners and opposition activists in Azerbaijan.

Emin Milli, a Azerbaijani opposition blogger sentenced to two-and-a half years in jail in 2009 for hooliganism, hailed the October 3 vote as "a fantastic and miraculous outcome."

"There are values and ideas that billions of dirty money can not buy!" he wrote on Facebook. "Thank you for making me to believe one more time that oil cannot always buy dignity."

According to Straesser, at least 89 people are currently held in Azerbaijani jails on political grounds.

RFE/RL's correspondent Rikard Jozwiak contributed to this report from Brussels

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