Azerbaijan’s Chairmanship of the Council of Europe: What follow-up on respect for human rights?
Representatives of Azerbaijan’s civil society urge members of the Bureau of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) to condemn the continuing clampdown on fundamental freedoms in Azerbaijan.
Here is the full text of the letter, sent to the PACE Bureau on 20 June 2014:
We understand that the Bureau of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is due to discuss a motion for a resolution called: Azerbaijan’s Chairmanship of the Council of Europe: What follow-up on respect for human rights? (document 13484).
We, the civil society of Azerbaijan, are deeply concerned by the continued imprisonment of people in Azerbaijan for exercising their right to freedoms of expression, assembly and association and therefore fully support the motion introduced by Mr. Michael McNamara, an Irish MP which called on the Assembly to address concerns regarding the implementation of fundamental freedoms and, especially, politically motivated detention, in Azerbaijan.
As human rights defenders facing multiple forms of harassment including, inter alia, police summons, arrest, propaganda and slandering and threats of organization closure, we believe that the motion could not be more timely, and we urge the Bureau to give it the full attention it deserves. Now that the issue has captured the attention of the Assembly, it is time for the Bureau to act and send the motion to the Legal Affairs and Human Rights Committee (AS/Jur) for a more detailed legislative solution.
Azerbaijan has been providing leadership in the Council of Europe since last month, promoting and protecting human rights standards in Europe and beyond. In the meantime, back home, arbitrary arrest, torture and unfair trials are widespread. Those who express criticism and speak up against human rights abuses go to prison.
Right now 29 human rights defenders, journalists, bloggers and political activists are behind bars on politically motivated charges in connection with freedom of expression. There are at least 19 prisoners of conscience in Azerbaijan, recognized as such by Amnesty International, imprisoned solely in connection with their attempts to peacefully exercise their right to freedom of expression, assembly and association, enshrined by Azerbaijan’s constitution and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR).
The existence of political prisoners is clearly incompatible with European standards and membership of the Council of Europe. There should be no wavering in the principles that are the pillars of the Council of Europe. The Council’s credibility and reputation are of immense political and ethical value. That credibility and reputation must be defended and protected, and they must retain their relevance. In this light, Mr. McNamara’s motion, is a significant incremental step to address a pressing issue of political prisoners.
Since the failure of the Parliamentary Assembly to hold Azerbaijan to account for the serious problem of political prisoners in the country with the failure to pass a key resolution on the issue in January 2013, the situation has dramatically worsened, with a dramatic increase in arrests and detentions of persons active in political and public life in Azerbaijan.
On May 16, Parviz Hashimli, a journalist with the newspaper Bizim Yol, was sentenced to eight years in prison on fabricated charges of smuggling and illegal storage and sale of firearms. During the trial, Hashimli reported being under pressure to implicate leading government opponents. The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic was “outraged by the lengthy prison sentence handed down to journalist, yet more proof of the deteriorating Azerbaijani media freedom environment. There are now more than 10 members of the media in prison in Azerbaijan, convicted or awaiting trial, which is the highest number in that country my Office has observed since it was established,” Mijatovic said.
On May 6, the eight youth activists from the pro-democracy movement NIDA that actively campaigned for democracy and against human rights abuses and social injustice and widespread corruption in Azerbaijan, were sentenced to six to eights years in prison on spurious charges of possessing drugs, explosives and intending to “cause public disorder”. The same day, Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Mr. Mammadyarov proudly presented Azerbaijan’s priorities of the chairmanship at the annual meeting of the Committee of Ministers in Vienna.
Further examples illustrating systematic, frantic crackdown on the critical voice:
Recent harassment of human rights defenders Leyla Yunus and Arif Yunus and criminal charges brought against Rauf Mirkadirov, the political commentator with independent Ayna/Zerkalo newspaper in retaliation for his journalism and criticism of ruling regimes in Azerbaijan, Russia and Turkey.
Lengthy jail sentences handed down to two opposition politicians, Ilgar Mammadov, the leader of the Republican Alternative Movement and the Director of the Council of Europe School of Political Studies in Baku, and Tofiq Yagublu, the political commentator with the opposition daily Yeni Musavat and the deputy head of the Musavat Party.
Sentencing of election watchdog chief. On May 26, the Baku Court of Serious Crimes sentenced human rights defender Anar Mammadli to five and a half years of imprisonment. His colleagues, Bashir Suleymanli and Elnur Mammadov were sentenced to three and a half years respectively, with two years of probation for Elnur Mammadov. All three human rights defenders deny the charges, dismissing them as groundless and fabricated. The Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), Ambassador Janez Lenarčič, immediately condemned the sentencing, describing the ruling as just the latest element in a campaign by the authorities in Azerbaijan to silence those working to ensure the protection of fundamental freedoms.
The conviction and imprisonment of Yadigar Sadigov on charges of hooliganism on January 13. He was arrested in June 2013 prior to the start of campaigning for the presidential election that was held on October 9. Sadigov is one of the most active and popular opposition politicians in the southern region of Azerbaijan. He has often raised the local social problems before the local authorities. He was also active on Facebook with his political views.
We call on you as a member of the Bureau to:
Ensure that the motion for a resolution Azerbaijan’s Chairmanship of the Council of Europe: What follow-up on respect for human rights? (document 13484) receives the full attention it merits during the forthcoming Bureau meeting. We believe the motion should be forwarded to the Legal Affairs and Human Rights Committee. The body, which deals with a wide range of legal and human rights topics, appointing parliamentary rapporteurs mandated to prepare reports based on in situ research, hearings and exchanges of views with experts. The Committee then should appoint a new special rapporteur tasked with examining the situation of political prisoners in Azerbaijan, who should be provided with sufficient resources and political support to monitor the situation and visit the country, to coordinate and work effectively with other actors, including the PACE Co-rapporteurs on Azerbaijan, and to present periodic reports to the Assembly. The Assembly should take concrete steps to ensure that Azerbaijan is held accountable for cooperating with the special rapporteur.
Urge the immediate and unconditional release of those who have been imprisoned solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedoms of expression, assembly and association and to ensure that those imprisoned on politically motivated charges are released or given a fair trial.
Condemn the continuing clampdown on fundamental freedoms and demand that the Azerbaijani authorities end the harassment, intimidation, arbitrary detention and criminal prosecution of those who legitimately exercise their right to freedoms of expression, assembly and association.
Compel the Azerbaijani government to honor its commitment to release all political prisoners, including journalists, bloggers and human rights defenders in prison or detention in connection with exercising their fundamental rights, and to stop using the courts to imprison critics and opponents.
Next Monday, the Bureau should ensure a substantive discussion and continuation of the Assembly’s work to secure the release and fair trial of all those who are illegally detained in Azerbaijan. In Resolution 1031 (1994), the Assembly observed "that all member States of the Council of Europe are required to respect their obligations under the Statute, the ECHR and all other Conventions to which they are parties. In the same resolution, the Assembly warned that "persistent failure to honor commitments freely entered into will have consequences [...]. For this purpose, the Assembly could use the relevant provisions of the Council of Europe's Statute and of its own Rules of Procedure." As a member of an Assembly, which represents the people of Europe and has proved principled in addressing serious human rights violations, you have every reason to be part of the much needed solution for Azerbaijan’s political prisoners. The subsequent use of your powers under the Rules of Procedure may be well crucial in order to safeguard Council’s democratic values and civil rights.
June 20, 2014
Akif Gurbanov, Democratic Initiatives Institute
Asabali Mustafayev, Democracy and Human Rights Resource Center
Aynur Imranova, Support for Development of Democracy and Media
Bashir Suleymanli, Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center
Elchin Abdullayev, Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Public Union
Elshan Hasanov, Azerbaijan Without Political Prisoners Public Alliance
Emin Huseynov, Institute for Reporters Freedom and Safety
Fuad Hasanov, Democracy Monitor
Gulnara Akhundova, Rights advocate
Gunay Ismayilova, Rights advocate
Jasur Mammadov, Doctrine Journalists Military Research Center
Idrak Abbasov, Institute of Extreme Journalism
Irada Javadova, Education on Human Rights Public Association
Khalid Agaliyev, Media Rights Institute
Leila Alieva, Center for National and International Studies
Letafet Malikova, Regional Human Rights and Education Public Association
Mirvari Gahramanli, Center for the Protection of Oilworkers' Rights
Rasul Jafarov, Legal Protection and Awareness Society
Samir Kazimli, Alliance for Protection of Political Freedoms
Sabir Alisgandarov, Azerbaijan Lawyers Association
Sadagat Pashayeva, Rights Advocate
Ulvi Hasanli, NIDA Civic Movement Board Member
YasharJafarli, Rights advocate
Zaur Akbar, Youth Club
Zohrab Ismayil, Public Association for Assistance to Free Economy