19 May 2014
Dear friends of ESI,
It seems the authorities in Azerbaijan are upset with ESI.
Last week I gave a presentation in Oslo at the invitation of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, one of the leading human rights organisations in Scandinavia. It was a call to European democrats to resist the capture of the Council of Europe by autocratic regimes. It advocated a campaign for a Europe without political prisoners:
There were many other speakers at this event, which focused on safeguarding international institutions against authoritarian abuse.
Norwegian Helsinki Committee Event, Oslo
Bill Browder, Head of the Justice for Sergei Magnitsky Campaign, spoke about "My struggle to get off the Interpol arrest order list."
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot/Zona Prava ("Law Zone") stressed the importance of not forgetting political prisoners in Russia.
Jago Russell, Chief Executive, Fair Trials International spoke about abuse by Interpol.
Gunnar M. Ekeløve-Slydal from the Norwegian Helsinki Committee spoke about "Traditional values" as a way of undermining respect for human rights.
There are human rights abuses in many countries. There are problems in many international institutions. And yet the recent capture of the Council of Europe by Azerbaijan remains a remarkable story with deeply troubling implications.
Elkhan Suleymanov does not agree. Once upon a time Elkhan Suleymanov was an official in the Soviet Ministry of Culture in Baku. Today he coordinates Azerbaijani policies towards the Council of Europe as member of its Parliamentary Assembly (PACE). Suleymanov has hosted many PACE parliamentarians in Baku in recent years. He has been less friendly towards anyone concerned about human rights.
A few days ago he made a statement to the press:
"On the eve of May 14th when Azerbaijan will take over the chairmanship to the Committee of Ministers, high-level body of the Council of Europe, the campaigns of several traditional anti-Azerbaijani organizations against our country extended.
As usual, European Stability Initiative, Freedom House, Human Rights Watch and others among these organizations are particularly distinguished."
A press release was distributed in English, German and French:
"Elkhan Suleymanov said the letter writing campaign by the European Stability Initiative, Freedom House and Human Rights Watch over the issue of political prisoners has "dynamically strengthened" in recent months with the aim of unfairly pressuring Baku. "The goal of anti-Azerbaijani forces is to bring the issue of "political prisoners" again onto the agenda …"
He also added:
"European Stability Initiative didn't calm down and spread a new material on May 5th after the decision on the visit of CoE Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland to Baku in May was announced. The organization called the relations between Azerbaijan and Council of Europe a game of cat and mouse, didn't refrain to influence, even make pressure on Secretary-General Thorbjorn Jagland reminding that he was also the Chair of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, and urged him "to address the issue of political prisoners due to commence in May of the chairmanship of Azerbaijan in the Committee of Ministers"."
Elkhan Suleymanov is right.
This is a campaign. It is aimed to bring the issue of political prisoners back onto the agenda. And we do want to encourage leaders in democratic Europe to defend the core values which the current regime in Baku rejects.
Mr. Jagland's visit
"We hope that Mr. Jagland will achieve something next week. We hope that the game of cat and mouse that Azerbaijan has been playing with political prisoners will come to an end."
Mr. Jagland's visit, once postponed, is now rescheduled for this week.
Recently thirty NGO leaders, journalists, activists and lawyers from Azerbaijan wrote to Mr. Jagland to point out how bad things are. PACE's first rapporteur for political prisoners in Azerbaijan (2001-2003), former Belgian parliamentarian George Clerfayt, also sent a letter to Mr. Jagland warning about current trends.
We hope that Mr. Jagland will not only go to Baku to congratulate the new chair of his organisation. It is not enough to express concern either. He should insist that political prisoners are actually released this month.
The time to play along with Baku's version of Cat and Mouse has to come to an end.
This is a campaign
In recent weeks all leading human rights organisations in Europe have pointed to an awful paradox: one of the most egregious human rights violating regimes in Europe – in the same league as the regime in Belarus – has taken over the chairmanship of the Council of Europe. And no other member of this organisation has said a word.
This Sunday a long article appeared in Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung:
And this is only the beginning.
Berlin 2 June: Europe without political prisoners
In two weeks we will organise, together with the Office of the Federal Commissioner for Human Rights of the German government, a conference in Berlin:
2-3 June 2014
Senior policy makers from across Europe, parliamentarians, human rights activists, dissidents and former political prisoners will discuss what needs to be done to realise the vision of a Europe without political prisoners. If you are in Berlin please join us for the opening panel:
16.00, Monday 2 June
On Tuesday June 3 the event will continue (by invitation only), hosted by the Swedish Embassy in Berlin. We will discuss "The Council of Europe and political prisoners"; "The European Union and its member states and political prisoners," and "The European public and the role of civil society."
Not a petrol station
Elkan Suleymanov is right about one aim of all this activity: to call on everyone who – for different reasons – has not spoken out strongly in defence of human rights in Azerbaijan to do so now.
It is a colourful group. It sees Azerbaijan as a petrol station in a bad neighbourhood, doomed to be run by a gang of thieves, because the only alternative is anarchy.
We do not agree. There is no reason why Azerbaijani citizens should not enjoy the same rights as citizens in other Council of Europe member states.
"Live not by Lies" Nida Baku Court Speech – May 2014
In fact, Azerbaijan has never been more European than earlier this month. On their last day in court, on 5 May 2014, eight young activists with names hard to pronounce by Western leaders, held up a mirror to the Council of Europe.
In their final statement NIDA activists, on hunger strike, about to be sentenced to 6 to 8 years in jail, linked their non-violent activism to the long and proud history of Soviet dissent – the very dissent that the father of current president Ilham Aliyev, Heydar, had worked to repress as a Soviet KGB general.
"We should also mention that we are not the sole victims of the regime in this trial. Your appointment as the judge and the prosecutor also makes you victims of this fabricated court case. Indeed, we behind bars, and you at liberty are all hostages and victims in this big prison called Azerbaijan. That’s why it is difficult to demand anything from you. How can one prisoner help another one?"
"As we see, the government doesn’t chase us because we are criminals. On the contrary, if we committed a crime, we would be friends of this regime. Because they themselves are criminal. Thus, they arrested us not only because we protested the death of our brothers on March 10, but also because of our nonviolent struggle, which is not forbidden by law."
"Solzhenitsyn in his "Live Not By Lies" wrote about despotic regimes’ dependence on everyone’s participation in the lies. He wrote that the simplest and most accessible key to our self-neglected liberation lies right here: Personal non-participation in lies. This is what NIDA does."
"We are not alone … This government has to understand that, even if there is only one person in the country with a conscience, he will continue the resistance against their atrocious anti-people politics. Finally, the truth will triumph over lies."
Will European democrats recognise themselves in the mirror held up by NIDA in Baku? Will the Council of Europe’s institutions – elected representatives of its 47 member states, the parliamentarians in PACE, its secretary general – finally react?
Istanbul seminar on visa liberalisation
There has been no good news coming out of Turkey since last summer. This has been another tragic week, exposing the cost of not adopting European standards: from mining and the protection of workers to political accountability of officials and the freedom of the media. Sometimes the absence of standards can be deadly.
The best way forward for Turkey is to adopt common European standards. And this makes increasing contacts between Turkish citizens and citizens in the rest of Europe vital.
Just read this recent story – one of many – to see how much still needs to be done to make such contact as easy as it should be:
Last week ESI spoke on the future of visa liberalisation at the OSCE in Vienna. We also spoke about visa liberalisation at an event hosted by the Diplomatic Academy of Ukraine in Kiev.
Later this month we will host a seminar in Istanbul:
Inside the ESI kitchen
How to help Turkey get visa-free travel
How to do advocacy and write reports
The 101 on Turkish visa liberalisation
Istanbul - 29 to 31 May 2014
If you are a Turkish analyst, expert, journalist or young civil servant, or if you are professionally interested in our experience on visa liberalisation then we invite you to apply.