As it kicked off the final countdown to its chairmanship of the Council of Europe's Commission of Ministers, Azerbaijan on May 6 sentenced eight youth activists to lengthy jail terms for allegedly organizing mass disturbances and possessing narcotics and weapons.
The group, detained in 2013 after attempting to organize a protest, were sentenced to between seven to eight years in prison, RFE/RL reported. Their sentencing sparked clashes between supporters and police, two of whom could be seen carrying off a protester upside down in a photo posted on Facebook by sympathizers. Dozens allegedly were arrested.
Apparently seeing no irony in its choice of timing, Baku today also announced the priorities for its six-month CoE role, which starts on May 14. The official to-do list includes a few items championed as well by the imprisoned youth activists -- namely "the fight against corruption" and "education on human rights." Also included are the less controversial priorities of "social issues, [the] multiculturalism inherent in Azerbaijan and education. . ." according to the APA news agency.
Deputy Foreign Minister Mahmud Mammadguliyev announced.
Mammadguliyev did not specify whether or not today's sentencing of the eight activists makes up part of that proposed "education on human rights." The ruling comes on the heels of the detention and interrogation of prominent human-rights activist Leyla Yunus and her husband, Arif Yunusov, both named as witnesses in a treason case against journalist Rauf Mirgadirov.
Human-rights organizations, however, scoff that the Azerbaijani government is in no position to provide an education about human-rights. The New-York-City-based Human Rights Watch called the sentences "one colossal injustice" and urged Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland, scheduled to visit Baku on May 8, to press Azerbaijan to begin "respecting the institution's standards . . ."
Amnesty International echoed that appeal, calling for the Council of Europe "to be more assertive in demanding" that Azerbaijan "respect the rights to freedom of association, assembly and expression," as well as release its estimated 19 prisoners of conscience.
The State Department earlier expressed concern about the fate of the imprisoned activists.
US Ambassador Richard Morningstar recently termed democracy and human rights issues the "elephant in the room" for the relationship between Baku and Washington. But, for now, it appears to be an elephant, which, for Baku, is relatively small.
As Ambassador Morningstar commented, the Azerbaijani government "bristles" at criticism of its human-rights record. And maintains that it acts within the letter of the law.
Appearing at a May 6 summit in Tbilisi with Turkish President Abdullah Gül and Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev did not address the sentencing of the youth activists. Instead, as APA reported, he identified energy as what "the most important issue in the world today" is.
The oil-and-gas transit cooperation between Azerbaijan, Turkey and Georgia "now carry global significance," Aliyev underlined.
As the situation in Ukraine deteriorates and Europe seeks to lessen -- once again -- Russia's grip on its energy supplies, that evaluation is not far off the mark.
But some critics fear that the Western desire for non-Russian gas supplies could ultimately muffle international criticism of Azerbaijan's less-than-spot-free human-rights record. Look for that debate to continue amidst the upcoming "education on human rights."
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.