Ilham the Magician and the Council of Europe

2 October 2012

Dear friends of ESI,

Black Magic in Strasburg?

This week on Wednesday 3 October in the afternoon, a hugely important debate will take place in Strasburg in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).

The Parliament will discuss whether to keep or discard the concept of "political prisoner" when they vote on a report by German Social Democrat Christoph Straesser, Special Rapporteur on political prisoners, on "The definition of political prisoners".

To show what is at stake – and why the eyes of all those who care about European standards of democracy should be on Strasburg this week – we have produced the following political fable. It illustrates Azerbaijan's latest attempt to undermine the credibility of the Council of Europe: Ilham the Magician and the Council of Europe

This picture story can best be viewed – and easily shared – on the ESI Facebook page (or as part of this newsletter: see below). It takes 5 minutes to read.

Earlier this year, ESI published the first part in our series on the future of "European standards": Caviar Diplomacy. How Azerbaijan Silenced the Council of Europe. Currently we are completing Part Two, taking a look at the mechanisms used to corrupt the guardians of European standards.

We will also provide an update on the debate in PACE on the ESI Facebook page later this week.


Return to Europe series: Croatia and Moldova

The oil of Moldova: grapes ESI research team in Central Moldova

The oil of Moldova: grapes – ESI research team in Central Moldova

The Return to Europe television documentary series, an initiative of ERSTE Stiftung in cooperation with ESI, continues with two new films to be broadcast, first in German, in October. A press conference and public viewing of the first film, "Twilight of Heroes – Croatia, Europe and the International Tribunal", will be held in Vienna on 10 October. If you are around and interested please join us! 

As always we look forward to your feedback,

Gerald Knaus

Gerald Knaus


Ilham the Magician and the Council of Europe

A Fable in 35 Acts that can be read in 5 minutes!

01 It is one of the oldest tricks of any magician to make a rabbit appear out of an empty hat.jpg

It must be the most classic magician's trick of all time: to pull a white rabbit out of a hat.


02 This magician, this week, will try a different trick to make a rabbit (a big problem for himself) disappear as if by magic.jpg

Ilham, the Magician from Baku, will try this week to pull off an altogether less common trick.


03 Here is where the magic is supposed to happen and he does not even have to appear in person. If all goes according to plan his friends will execute the trick for him.jpg

This is the stage where Ilham will try to work his magic: the grand theatre of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).

Ilham does not even need to appear in person: his friends in PACE will help him solve once and for all the problem of political prisoners in Azerbaijan.


04 It all started more than a dcecade ago, in 2000, when the magicians father wanted Azerbaijan to become a member of the Council of Europe.jpg

To understand why this is so important we must go back to once upon a time, to Heydar, the father and magic arts teacher of Ilham.

Heydar managed to bewitch the members of PACE in January 2001 into letting Azerbaijan join their assembly.    


05 People in PACE agreed, but saw one serious problem a very large number of suspected political prisoners.jpg

Not everybody in PACE was convinced this was a good idea. A few pointed out that Azerbaijan had a serious problem with arresting people for political reasons. Resolving the political prisoner issue became the most urgent problem for Azerbaijan upon accession to the Council of Europe.


06 This is why then the secretary of the CoE, Walter Schwimmer, created a special group to look into this closely.jpg

The secretary general of the Council of Europe at the time, Walter Schwimer (Austria), decided that the organization needed an energetic approach to the political prisoner issue. So …


07 The group was headed by a very respected Swiss judge Stefan Trechsel. The first thing it did was to produce a clear definition of what was a political prisoner.jpg

…he asked a respected group of international lawyers to help investigate allegations concerning political prisoners in Azerbaijan. One was the eminent Swiss lawyer and judge Stefan Trechsel. His first step was…


Graphic - Definition.gif

…an obvious one: to produce a clear DEFINITION of 'political prisoner'. After all, to identify white rabbits one must know what the word "white rabbit" refers to.

This definition was approved by PACE. It was also used to assess hundreds of individual cases between 2001 and 2004.


08 PACE also appointed rapporteurs for political prisoners, including this very active British MP, Malcolm Bruce.png

PACE also appointed special rapporteurs for political prisoners in Azerbaijan: first a Belgian, then a British MP, Malcolm Bruce.

Bruce took his work seriously, visiting Azerbaijan, talking to its leaders, pressing the case in public and in PACE. And then: success! By 2005, a significant number of prisoners were released.


16 But Ilham the magician had not given up on the idea of making the problem disappear. It is only that he had a different solution in mind.jpg

For Ilham the Magician (now President of Azerbaijan), there was now no need for any more rapporteurs. 'Trust me,' he assured PACE, 'I'll deal with it.'

Ilham created a special task force in Baku to look into the issue. So when Malcolm Bruce left in 2005, PACE appointed no successor.


10 Outside observers had reason to wonder what he meant - arrest continued even in August 2005 - here Bashirli.jpg

But Ilham dealt with the issue in his own way. Already in August 2005 the arrests started again. Youth opposition activist Ruslan Bashirli was one.


11 He also was arrested and sentenced.jpg

In April 2007 the journalist Eynulla Fatullayev was sentenced to a total of 8.5 years …


12 So was Genimet Zahidov.jpg

In November 2007 Genimet Zahidov, another opposition journalist, was sentenced to four years on trumped-up hooliganism charges.


13 So were these dangerous bloggers -Emin and Adnan during their trial.jpg

In July 2009 two critical bloggers and activists, Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade, who were also arrested for hooliganism. They were tried and sentenced to 2.5 and 2 years in prison, respectively.


14 Some people in PACE saw this as a problem and appointed a rapporteur as successor Bruce.jpg

By 2009, some people in PACE began to suspect that they had been tricked. The task force Ilham created in 2005 was silent. The arrests continued. Something had to be done …


15 His task was to work with Azerbaijan as Bruce had done to try to resolve the problem.jpg

So in March 2009, after a gap of four years, PACE appointed the German Social Democrat Christoph Straesser to get back on the case of Azerbaijan's political prisoners. 


16 But Ilham the magician had not given up on the idea of making the problem disappear. It is only that he had a different solution in mind.jpg

But Ilham the Magician had another trick up his sleeve. He now argued that nobody knew what the term 'political prisoner' really meant.


17 the first step was not to let Straesser enter Azerbaijan to meet any of hte alleged poliitvcal prisoners. Easy Straesser was denied a visa..jpg

And since "political prisoner" was a meaningless concept, like superfragilisticexpialidocious or Ubbi Dubbi, Ilham decided that there was really nothing for Straesser to investigate. So he was denied a visa for three years.


18 the second step was to mobilise friends of Ilham the magician in PACE, such as Mike Hancock.jpg

Even a good magician needs an assistant. Ilham had several. To help him bamboozle PACE, Ilham recruited a network of supporters. People like the British MP Mike Hancock, who argued tirelessly for the non-existence of political prisoners and other white rabbits.


Or Eduard Lintner (Germany), the influential head of PACE's committee on legal affairs and human rights. On leaving PACE, Lintner magically reappeared to work as a lobbyist for Ilham and his friends.


20 Or Mevlut Cavusoglu.jpg

Or Mevlut Cavusoglu (Turkey), president of PACE from 2010 to 2012, who argued in June 2005, on the issue of political prisoners, that Azerbaijan had fulfilled "that thorny and complicated commitment, so the issue should be considered closed from now on."


21 Or De Bono Grech.jpg

With a cunning sleight of hand, Ilham magically transformed the once-critical monitoring committee rapporteurs into apologists for the Baku regime. People like Joseph Debono Grech (Malta) …


22 Or him Agramunt.jpg

… or Pedro Agramunt, the second rapporteur, who repeatedly strongly emphasized "important progress in the democratization of the country" (Information Note, 12 April 2011).       


23 with these friends Ilham Aliyev wanted to show that he could handle PACE even better than his father ever could.jpg

With cunning stage management, Ilham Aliyev pulled off a trick that even his great father and teacher had been unable to do: he silenced the Council of Europe, without making any concessions at all.


24 In the end Straesser did present two reports in June 2012.jpg

Straesser the Rapporteur was not so easily conjured away. He presented his report on Azerbaijan's political prisoners in June 2012 in the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights. In a second report he pointed out that the 2001 definition of 'political prisoner' had been there all along.

Straesser faced a difficult time in the Committee that had appointed him. Ilham's assistants were determined to make his report disappear. It was the closest of votes in the committee (26 for, 22 against) …


25 Refering to 89 concrete alleged cases, including Iskenderov.jpg

Despite the difficulties he faced Straesser was able to detail 89 cases of alleged political prisoners in Azerbaijan.

These include people like Vidadi Iskenderov, a human rights defender and a former parliamentary candidate. Arrested in April 2011 for participating in a peaceful protest, later charged with putting pressure on voters and sentenced to 3 years in prison.


27 Here is Ilhams trick - if this is the definition of political prisoner.jpg

Here is Ilham's trick up close: the white rabbit is the definition of a political prisoner…


28 he only needs to get enough of his friends to turn out and vote that it does not exist - thh definition - and then his problem disappears as well!!.jpg

This Wednesday afternoon in PACE, as the drums roll and the lights are dimmed, Ilham will try to make the white rabbit disappear.


Graphic - Definition - crossed out.gif

This is the trick in all its elegant simplicity: No definition, no political prisoners, no problem.

All it takes is for enough of Ilham's friends to turn up at PACE this Wednesday at 16:30 (and to remain there until 18:30). Not surprisingly, a record attendance is expected.


29 This would be his masterpiece in the Council of Europe - and would make him the envy among authoritarian leaders in the East.jpg

'If this is how PACE works, I really ought to be a member soon,' thinks Lukashenko from Belarus with barely concealed envy. Imagine how much Ilham the Magician would be admired by other authoritarian leaders in Eastern Europe if he pulls off his latest trick!


32 So the vote on Wednesday afternoon on the definition of political prisoners is of huge significance for the future of dissent in Azerbaijan and elsewhere.jpg

But will the trick work? Will the majority of PACE members accept the disappearance of the definition, in plain daylight, this Wednesday afternoon? Perhaps. But it's not just the rabbit that would disappear…

With the definition of political prisoner gone, it will be very hard to get it back again. And the Council of Europe's moral authority will disappear alongside it.


30 Meanwhile it is not only definitions and rabbbits that can disappear - this week dissidents and critical bloggers were also kidnapped in Baku.png

Other things might also disappear in the future: like this dissident and critical blogger, Zaur Qurbanli, who last week was picked up by special forces in Baku and disappeared for a few days.

His crime? He dared suggest that two terms as President might be enough for Ilham Aliyev. When Qurbanli reappeared he was charged with resisting the police and detained …


34 But this rabbit.jpg


So who can save this rabbit? They are your elected parliamentarians from across Europe: their names are to be found here.

In fact, all it takes for PACE to save its reputation and the legacy of more than a decade of work on political prisoners in Azerbaijan is to back the resolution which will be voted on this Wednesday afternoon.

For more: visit the ESI Azerbaijan website section at

Gerald Knaus