Azerbaijan escaped the most recent session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe without fresh sanctions, but not without scars. After intense debate, the multi-state body called on Azerbaijan to release or at least grant new trials to 43 prisoners in its custody. This call, in Resolution 1272, came exactly one year after Azerbaijan joined the Council. It cheered some Azerbaijani political parties and rights groups, but led the government to defy the organization it had worked to join.
Opposition parties and human rights groups had initially supported the country's membership as a means of putting pressure on the government to respect international standards for human rights and democracy. During the first year of Council membership, however, observers say the government's performance deteriorated with regard to press freedom and the rights of the political opposition. Leyla Yunusova, Director of Azerbaijan's Institute for Peace and Democracy, hailed the PACE resolution, saying "that this is an appropriate appeal that the government should respect. Baku should make its mind up," she continued, "whether they want to be counted within the European community or among the dictators." Rasul Guliyev, the exiled Chairman of the opposition Democratic Party, welcomed the resolution, but lamented that it was late in coming. Five of Guliyev's relatives are currently among the political prisoners on the human rights groups' list.
Those prisoners include former government officials whom President Heydar Aliyev accuses of terrorism. State TV cited separatist Alikram Humbatov, former defense minister Rahim Qaziyev, former prime minister Surat Huseynov and Huseynbala Huseynov - who was convicted in 2000 of acting as an accomplice in a 1995 plot to kill Aliyev - as proof of PACE's "double standard." During the debate, Azerbaijani delegates marshaled support from Russia, Ukraine and Turkey to question the objectivity of the independent experts who assessed the situation for PACE.
Though PACE called the release of 220 prisoners during the study "encouraging," neither it nor official Baku changed tack since debate began in early January. Government officials chose to spend the weeks before the vote lobbying member states against it rather than releasing even a few prisoners. (At the same time, rights groups charge, Azerbaijani police began arresting dissidents such as Mirvari Qahramanli, cochairwoman of the Committee to Protect Oil Workers' Rights, on dubious grounds.) The day before the resolution, Ilham Aliyev, President Aliyev's son and the head of Azerbaijan's PACE delegation, declared the body "biased" and vouched confidence, on national television, that the resolution would not survive.
Walter Schwimmer, Secretary General of the Council of Europe, twice broke with custom and took the floor during the debates. Mr. Schwimmer at one point explained, "I speak for the second time today because I think that the credibility of the organization is at stake." He interceded to defend the integrity of the experts he appointed, and their finding that there are political prisoners in Azerbaijan. "I appeal to the authorities of Azerbaijan to fully comply with the conclusions of the independent experts," he said to the Assembly. "I repeat," he said, "that one political prisoner in a member country of the Council of Europe is one too many. There should be no political prisoners, and therefore please follow the recommendations of our independent experts."
Despite this direct appeal, voting was close and penalties were mostly abstract. The resolution was adopted by a vote of 55 for, 37 opposing and 2 abstentions. Peter Schieder, PACE's new president, gave an indication of the organization's priorities this Tuesday in his inaugural address. "Our strength lies in our commitment to human rights and democracy," he said, "not as an abstract value or empty word used often and rarely meant, but as a commitment based on legally binding rules and demonstrated in practice, demonstrated when it matters, where human rights are oppressed and when democracy is threatened." Schieder, an Austrian, also met with Ilham Aliyev on January 24. The president's son told state TV that he had conveyed Azerbaijan's desire to be "a valuable member" of PACE in the meeting.
Andreas Gross, a member of the Swiss delegation and the rapporteur for Azerbaijan on PACE's monitoring committee, commented for EurasiaNet on the decision. "We adopted the resolution, which is very critical, and concerns how the regime in Azerbaijan does not respect the integrity of the life of the people in the opposition," he said. Referring to obligations Azerbaijan freely accepted upon joining the Council, he said, "When [member states] don't follow the commitments and values, their membership in the Council is always at stake. We have been open minded and liberal by admitting [Azerbaijan] and we will be correct and hard in pursuing its commitments."
Nonetheless, Azerbaijan retains its voting rights in PACE and appears to have lost none of its swagger. Ilham Aliyev told state TV that he rebuked the Armenian delegation in Strasbourg by saying that "the delegate of a country where political opponents are shot dead in parliament has no right to speak on this subject or condemn anybody."
Kenan Aliev is a journalist based in Washington, DC.