The European Court of Human Rights recently ruled that Azerbaijan must pay 25,000 euros ($32,608) to a woman injured by police during the 2003 crackdown on opposition protestors. Still unresolved is whether Azerbaijani leaders will tackle the underlying problems that led to the judgment against them.
According to court documents, Baku resident Mahira Muradova was injured when an unidentified police officer struck her with a truncheon in the Azerbaijani capital's Azadliq Square during demonstrations that followed the 2003 presidential elections. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive] The beating left Muradova blind in one eye. Her attempts to bring the perpetrators to justice were squelched when authorities closed a criminal investigation based on what they claimed to be insufficient evidence. She then turned to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
The Strasbourg-based ECHR found that police used excessive force against Muradova and failed to investigate her charges of misconduct adequately.
Chingiz Asgarov, Azerbaijan's representative to the ECHR, told EurasiaNet that the government has not yet decided how it will respond to the April 2 ruling. Azerbaijan has the right to appeal the decision to the Court's Grand Chamber. If it does not appeal, Azerbaijan is obligated to pay Muradova within three months.
This is not the first time Azerbaijan has been taken to task by the ECHR for police misconduct. Two years ago, in a case also arising out of the 2003 demonstrations, the Court found that authorities engaged in torture when they badly beat and threatened to rape a member of the opposition. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive.]
At the time, many human rights activists expressed optimism that the judgment would spur reforms. Today, many remain disappointed with the lack of transparency and corruption within Azerbaijan's law enforcement agencies. "There seems to be an allergy to real accountability," commented Rachel Denber, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division.
Muradova's lawyer, Isakhan Ashurov, expressed doubt as to whether this single decision from the ECHR would generate sufficient momentum for substantive change in law-enforcement tactics. "It is not as if police will stop beating people. What they will say is 'don't hit them in the eye,'" he joked wryly in an interview with EurasiaNet.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which oversees Azerbaijan's police forces, told EurasiaNet that he had never heard of Muradova's case.
Ashurov, a former investigator and police chief, questions whether Azerbaijan has the capacity or political will to reform its law enforcement. "They cannot fix the police. What they will do now is do some more joint projects implemented with government-supported NGOs, telling police they can't beat people. But they will be cosmetic changes."
International observers echo Ashurov's assessment. In its 2008 Human Rights Report, the US Department of State stated that Azerbaijan's "security forces were generally able to act with impunity." Amnesty International cited "persistent reports of the use of torture or other ill-treatment by law enforcement officials."
In the past, Azerbaijan has resisted calls to punish police for using excessive force. In 2007, President Ilham Aliyev vowed that "not a single police officer would be punished" for using force to quell alleged violence during the 2005 parliamentary elections. In the same speech, however, Aliyev recognized Azerbaijan's international obligations as part of the European community.
Antoine Busye, an ECHR expert with the Netherlands' Institute for Human Rights, notes that Azerbaijan is not the only post-Soviet country struggling to harmonize its justice system with Western democratic principles. Many of the cases before the ECHR from former Soviet states concern "basic shortcomings of the rule of law," Busye observed.
In a 2006 article for the online Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies, researchers Marina Caparini and Otwin Marenin identified police reform as "one of the more difficult tasks faced by the post-socialist states." Reform efforts to date appear "superficial" and have done nothing to transform "the working values, habits and practices of the police." Centralization, lack of funding, and corruption are several of the elements the scholars identified as undermining the democratization of law enforcement.
Within Azerbaijan, public trust also remains a challenge to reform, according to Arzu Geybullayeva, an Azerbaijani analyst with the European Stability Initiative, a Berlin-based research institute. Geybullayeva notes the police have gained a reputation for being unresponsive and that "people in Azerbaijan in general, regardless of their place of work, have gotten used to the idea that anything [can] be done through bribes."
Azerbaijan has worked with international donors to train police on crowd control and to promote respect for human rights. Last year, the US government budgeted over $2 million for a program that sought to develop and reform Azerbaijan's law enforcement.
Implemented together with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the program trained over 1,500 Azerbaijani police and troops from the Ministry of the Interior on techniques that are "consistent with international law enforcement practices on appropriate and proportional response to public assembly incidents," according to a summary of the program on the US State Department's website.
Other OSCE programs have helped modernize the curriculum for the training of rank-and-file police officers. The training course, which was previously three months, has been extended to six months and cadets are now taught public assembly management techniques. The OSCE is also working with Azerbaijan on community policing and creating a more service-oriented mentality among law-enforcement officers.
John MacGregor, who heads up the OSCE's Azerbaijan police programs, believes top Ministry of Interior officials are intent on improving police training. "I see a real and genuine effort on the part of the ministry," he commented.
Azerbaijan's police academy also boasts one of the largest law schools in the country, a five-year program with graduates attaining the rank of lieutenant. Legal commentators generally agree that Azerbaijan's laws comport with international standards. For example, Azerbaijan passed a new criminal code in 2000, which, in addition to banning torture, defines the crime in a manner consistent with the UN Convention on Torture.
Yet a gap remains between laws on the books and the way they are implemented. Ashurov provides a blunt diagnosis: "The laws are just not followed."
Jessica Powley Hayden is a freelance reporter based in Baku.