Azerbaijan has dropped charges of tax evasion and abuse of power against Turan news agency and its director, Mehman Aliyev in an apparent response to international outcry over the case. But it's directed greater attention at a separate PR posie -- an honor from the Council of Europe for justice-system innovations.
Both developments hit shortly after an "unprecedented" decision by the Council of Europe (CoE), the continent's main human-rights body, to ask the European Court of Human Rights to review Azerbaijan for violation of the convention which all CoE members agree to uphold.
Azerbaijan's November 2 Turan-related decision has no direct bearing on this review, but its PR potential is there. International rights groups spoke out forcibly against the prosecution of Turan and Aliyev as an alleged attempt to switch off criticism of the government – a charge Baku denied. Often described as Azerbaijan's last independent media outlet, the news agency stated that it can now get back to work as usual.
In comments to AFP, according to RFE/RL, Aliyev attributed the change to “pressure” from the US, EU and rights organizations “on the Azerbaijani government.”
Giorgi Gogia, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher for the South Caucasus, agreed that the international outcry over Turan and Aliyev “might have had a role in the government’s decision to drop the charges.”
A proposal by one US senator, Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois, to impose sanctions against Azerbaijani officials involved in Aliyev’s pre-trial arrest could well have sparked the greatest concern. Aliyev was released this September.
Senator Durbin’s office did not respond to a request for comment about Azerbaijan’s decision to drop the case against Turan and its editor-in-chief.
The Council of Europe repeated an earlier statement that "media and journalists should be able to carry out their activities freely without being subject to intimidation or undue interference,” while the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Freedom of Media Representative Harlem Désir expressed hope that Turan “will fully resume its important work soon, and work without further pressure in the future.”
The story largely does not appear to have registered in mainstream Azerbaijani media.
Yet Azerbaijan faces trouble not only from the Turan case.
On October 25, the Council of Europe (CoE) announced that it has asked the European Court of Human Rights to examine whether Azerbaijan’s ongoing imprisonment of opposition politician Ilgar Mammadov in defiance of a 2014 court ruling constitutes another violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. The inquiry is the first of its kind.
Azerbaijan’s response is expected by November 29.
If the proceeding goes against Azerbaijan, the South Caucasus country’s future in the Council of Europe would be under question. A resolution by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe recently took Baku to task for another series of alleged rights violations, including denial of the right to a fair trial.
This scrutiny, however, did not prevent Azerbaijan from finishing as a finalist in the Council of Europe’s October 27 Crystal Scales of Justice competition. The annual, jury-run contest focuses on “innovative and efficient practices” in “the functioning of justice, judicial procedures or the organisation of courts” with an aim “to improve the functioning of the public justice system.” Jury members represented Croatia, Greece, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway and Switzerland.
Out of the contest’s four entrants, a Norwegian witness-support program won first prize.
Azerbaijan’s own project, “Court Pulse – The Management Revolution,” dealt with how “evidence based decision making” (an apparent reference to data and information-communication technology) can lead to an “innovative approach” in running courts.
Some rights advocates might take "innovative" as a euphemism for "toeing the government line." Trials of government critics are routinely faulted for a lack of evidence, among other problems.
The Council of Europe did not respond to questions about the reasons for Azerbaijan’s ranking in the contest, but directed Tamada Tales to its online description of the event. Reasons for Azerbaijan’s selection as a finalist did not appear on the site.
But the Azerbaijan State News Agency did not need them.
“Azerbaijan's justice system lauded by Council of Europe,” read an October 31 agency headline duplicated by pro-government media outlets.
The message to locals? Azerbaijan is part of rights-conscious Europe and it's there to stay.
--This post was updated on November 14, 2017.