1 June 2014

Today Monday, 2nd of June, at 4 pm in Berlin ESI, together with the German Federal Commissioner for Human Rights, organises  a public debate on the future of political prisoners in Europe. Our goal is to raise the awareness about this issue and about the current failure of international organisations. It is also to discuss concrete proposals on what to do next.

It certainly seems the right moment to focus on this issue. A few days ago I got a message from Leyla Yunus, one of Azerbaijan’s most respected human rights defenders:

“No support from CoE!

All of us hostages. procurator do not return our passports, which they took illegally!

Leyla”

 

Leyla Yunus Foto: Christian HassLeyla Yunus

 

We are hearing a lot from people already in prison in Azerbaijan about the economic hardships faced by their families as a result of their captivity. They also often rely on lawyers they cannot afford to pay and who therefore work pro bono, with a significant risk of later being harassed for this very work.

For all these reasons ESI and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee have put together a set of concrete proposals for discussion in Berlin. We will share it at the conference, discuss it more on Tuesday with leading practitioners, and then put it online after receiving more ideas. Here are some of these concrete ideas – an excerpt from our paper – for your feedback:


Introduction

In 2014 there are, once again, a growing number of people in Europe who are jailed for no other reason than for disagreeing with their government.

In Azerbaijan, we witness at this very moment a wave of repression against independent journalists, youth protesters, election observers, opposition leaders and Muslim believers, with many receiving long jail terms. In Russia, people who participated in peaceful protests in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square after Vladimir Putin’s re-election in 2012 have received tough sentences. Many other activists and government critics have also been brought before the courts. Ukraine, until recently, held political prisoners. There are many political prisoners in Belarus.

Europe has the densest network of human rights NGOs in the world. All European states, with the exception of Belarus, are also members of the Council of Europe. They have thus signed and ratified the European Convention on Human Rights. They have committed themselves to respecting fundamental rights and freedoms. Belarus has accepted the human rights obligations of OSCE membership. But the problem persists, and is in fact getting much worse.

Proposal I: a European website on political prisoners

We propose to create a website on political prisoners in Europe, supported by a coalition of human rights NGOs. This could help focus and mobilise public attention.

The website would highlight all cases of people arrested for their views or on other politically motivated grounds in European countries.

In particular, it would include and consider as political prisoners for this project the following individuals, and make clear these sources:

-          all prisoners of conscience recognized by Amnesty International,

-          all presumed political prisoners identified by PACE rapporteurs,

-          all other relevant cases identified by reputable human rights organisations, including Human Rights Watch, Reporters without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Article 19, as well as leading national human rights organisations, which have a methodology and resources and a definition to establish their lists.

Such a website would feature prisoners’ photos, biographies and information on developments in their cases. The aim would help raise awareness of political prisoners among the European public.

There might also be a separate section on alleged political prisoners. NGOs and human rights activists can submit information to the website administrator on who in their view should be included in this category and whose case would deserve to be looked at more closely. These would add pressure on the Council of Europe to find ways examine these prisoners’ cases and establish whether there are systemic patterns of politically motivated persecutions.

 

Proposal II: Effective support mechanisms for families

and lawyers of political prisoners

How can one most effectively mobilize support for families of political prisoners and their lawyers? What existing aid channels are there, and which organizations have already been involved? Where do gaps exists? Are there opportunities for better cooperation in raising the awareness of the need for support among different NGOs?

There appears to be a need for new support mechanisms, for ordinary people to contribute to them and for better ways to advertise them.

 

Proposal III: Establish a standing Expert Commission on Political Prisoners

The Council of Europe needs a new professional and credible mechanism to address the issue of political prisoners. The mechanism must be potentially applicable to any member state where a systemic pattern of repression is suspected. Its work must be compatible with the work of other institutions (the Court and rapporteurs) and complement their work. A new Expert Commission on Political Prisoners could meet both requirements.

The initiative for creating such a panel can come from the Secretary General or the Committee of Ministers. The panel then would be set up by the Committee of Ministers, which is authorized to set up “advisory and technical committees or commissions.”This would require a two-thirds majority of votes cast with a minimum of 24 votes in favour. No member state would have a veto. This panel would become active if one of the following Council of Europe institutions finds a systemic pattern of politically motivated repression!

The proposed panel on political prisoners could be composed of 3 to 7 experts. These should be former judges, presidents of national courts or senior human rights lawyers. . They would act in their individual capacity. The panel would receive necessary resources and a budget for travel, translation, legal aid, and other expenses.

Several institutions would have the right to independently appeal to this Expert Commission to begin work and examine the situation and cases in any country where they are suspecting systemic repression.

-          PACE rapporteurs of any committee; the president of PACE; or the PACE bureau.

A new PACE rapporteur on political prisoners could also ask the Commission to examine – with more resources than a rapporteur will ever have – whether there is a pattern of systemic repression, which would make his or her political work easier.

-          The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights.

-          The Secretary General.

-          A number (to be determined) of member states of the Committee of Ministers

The commission’s work would consist of investigating individual cases in a quasi-judicial capacity, but not leading to legally binding judgements, to see if there is a systematic pattern of abuse. Suggestions for cases to examine would be submitted both by the Council of Europe’s own institutions and by local and international NGOs or human rights defenders.

The panel would select a limited number of pilot cases and examine them first. Then, it would complete draft opinions on whether these individuals are political prisoners according to the PACE 2012 definition and ask the authorities of the country for feedback. After this, it would finalize its opinions and set a reasonable deadline for the authorities to react by granting a release or retrial and carrying out reforms to stop systemic abuse of this kind.

After the deadline, either the Secretary General or a PACE rapporteur for political prisoners or the Commissioner for Human Rights should assess whether the authorities have acted on the findings of the experts.

If this is not the case, the Assembly and the Committee of Ministers should consider sanctions, including a boycott of official Council of Europe meetings in this country and loss of voting rights. Also, no such country would be able to assume the chairmanship of the Council of Europe as long as the situation is not resolved.

A similar panel of legal experts was already successfully used by the Council of Europe in 2001-2004 for Azerbaijan. The combined efforts of the experts and PACE rapporteurs led to the determination that there were 62 presumed political prisoners in Azerbaijan and to the release of hundreds of alleged political prisoners in the country.

Currently in the case of Azerbaijan, PACE did already adopt a resolution on 23 January 2013 stating that there were not only individual cases but in fact a systemic pattern of arrests. The Council’s Commissioner for Human Rights has also identified “selective criminal prosecution” of dissenters in Azerbaijan. Either of these findings would in the future automatically trigger the Commission to look into the situation more closely.

Proposal IV: The future of the Russian delegation in PACE

In April 2014, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and military involvement in the Ukraine crisis, PACE voted to suspend the voting rights of the Russian delegation until the end of the year. It should be considered to link the restoration of voting rights to progress on other human rights issues, not limited to Ukraine, and in particular to addressing all concerns about political prisoners.

Proposal V: Azerbaijani chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers

On 14 May, Azerbaijan assumed the six-month chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers. There is consensus among human rights NGOs that the situation with political prisoners has markedly deteriorated in Azerbaijan. This has also been publicly confirmed by various institutions of the Council of Europe. On 29 April, the Council’s Human Rights Commissioner Nils Muiznieks issued a statement on Azerbaijan, in which he condemned “unjustified or selective criminal prosecution of journalists and others who express critical opinions.”

On 22 May, Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland published an op-ed in European Voice, in which he conceded that Azerbaijan was “known in Western capitals for stifling journalists and locking up opposition activists” and maintained that the Council of Europe was not blind to violations. The same day, ECtHR issued a judgment saying that the Azerbaijani authorities had arrested opposition leader Ilgar Mammadov to “silence and punish” him for criticising the government.

On 23 May, PACE President Anne Brasseur spoke in Baku, mentioning a “more than worrying state of affairs” in Azerbaijan, criticising the deterioration of freedom of expression, assembly and association, and calling on the government to release Ilgar Mammadov.

There is a consensus on the seriousness of the problem. There should now also be an appropriate reaction. One clear measure to be considered now would be to hold no Council of Europe meetings and events in Azerbaijan until Ilgar Mammadov, on whom the ECtHR has already ruled, is released.

Secondly Azerbaijan should officially agree to the appointment of a new PACE rapporteur on political prisoners and commit itself to cooperation.

Thirdly, the Secretary General and the Committee of Ministers should establish an Expert Commission as outlined above.

Proposal VI: an EU visa panel for human rights violators

The European Union has the power to sanction human rights violators. One type of sanctions (“restrictive measures”) are travel bans. Traveling to the EU is not an inherent right. It is a privilege that governments are free to deny. Sanctions can be proposed by member states and the High Representative for Foreign Policy, who can also act together with the European Commission.

The body responsible for imposing sanctions is the Council of Ministers. It does so by adopting – unanimously – a document called a “decision”. For travel bans, no additional legislation is necessary, and member states are obliged to directly implement the Council’s decision. Travel is a privilege, not a right. The EU needs to develop a forward-looking policy of denying entry and visa to human rights violators from Russia, Azerbaijan and other states.

To do this, member states could sponsor an independent commission of senior former judges, who would make annual recommendations to the Council of Ministers on who should be barred from entry.

This proposal avoids two pitfalls: it is not summary justice and it provides a mechanism for appeal. The independent commission would review its recommended blacklist annually, providing room for appeal. The whole process would also ensure transparency. This would increase pressure on EU governments to act, spur debates, and create a credible process that human rights defenders can use.

Conclusion: a campaign “2015 For a Europe without political prisoners”

Many of the most respected human rights organisations have their roots in campaigns on behalf of political prisoners: Amnesty International (the 1961 letter by Peter Berenson on “The forgotten prisoners”), Human Rights Watch (the Helsinki committees to support dissident in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union).

After the end of the Cold War it seemed for a short moment as if this particular problem no longer haunts Europe. Now it has returned. This is a test of the ability and compassion of European civil society, and of the organisational capacity of human rights defenders. A reactive approach is clearly no longer enough.

Combined efforts pay off. Concrete initiatives and proposals can be brought together under the banner of a Europe-wide campaign “2015 For a Europe without political prisoners.” Such an effort would be a joint effort of different independent human rights NGOs. The strategy could encompass all these various elements:

-          highlighting stories of individual victims better;

-          mobilising support for victims, their families and lawyers;

-          mobilising think tanks and NGOs to monitor and analyse PACE and its members;

-          taking back and using existing mechanisms in the Council of Europe;

-          setting up a new mechanism in the Council of Europe to look into systemic imprisonments on political grounds in member states,

-          institutionalising a process for visa bans for human rights offenders by the EU.


In accordance with Article 17 of the Statute of the Council of Europe: “The Committee of Ministers may set up advisory and technical committees or commissions for such specific purposes as it may deem desirable.”

PACE Resolution 1917 (2013) “The honouring of obligations and commitments by Azerbaijan”, 23 January 2013, para. 14.

 

Azerbaijan - Chairman of “REAL” movement Ilgar Mammadov and Deputy chairman of Musavat Party Tofig Yagublu

Ilgar Mammadov and Tofiq Yagublu, two political prisoners in Azerbaijan

A few days ago a  relative of another political prisoner in Azerbaijan, Tofig Yagublu, forwarded me this appeal:

“I have been sentenced to prison term on absurd charges since I fight for democratization of Azerbaijan, for its transformation into the part of the progressive world. So that you have an idea about absence of any justification for charges against me, I would like to state that, those charges have as much relevance to you as it has to me.

Due to aggressive actions of Russia against Ukraine the humanity is on the brink of its another tragedy. It is a problem of lack of democracy. Russia’s complacent, illogical and unfair actions are due to lack of democratic society and democratic government formed in accordance with popular will. Would Russia be able to act complacently and carelessly like this, had it had democratic societies in the countries surrounding it?

Therefore, one of the most effective ways of helping Russia is seriously supporting democratization process in surrounding former soviet countries. The Azerbaijani authorities are illegitimate and corrupt. The amount of money stolen by these authorities from the people is way more than the state budget. There have not been any free and fair elections in Azerbaijan since Aliyevs came to power in Azerbaijan. The OSCE ODIHR opinion on the presidential elections held in the autumn of 2013 was the most critical and strict among the opinions stated until present. But even this critical evaluation is lenient compared to the objective reality.

The statements of the authorities with regards to absence of democracy and human rights problems in Azerbaijan is similar to what the USSR leadership used to say on the same topic, and to what the North Korean leadership is saying now. The incumbent government is using energy resources and its important geographical location to refrain from carrying out its international obligations on democracy and human rights. Unfortunately, they have been successful in this until present.

Take into consideration that, political parties and civil society organizations fighting for democracy in Azerbaijan unambiguously see the happy future of Azerbaijan in integration to the West, to EU and NATO. Under such circumstances, the interests of the Azerbaijani people and the progressive world will be ensured more effectively and in a more guaranteed way, unlike in case of existence of the regime, which is staying in power through the Kremlin’s support.

Therefore, it is obvious that, significant pressure on the incumbent regime to start democratic reforms in Azerbaijan is an objective necessity. Under such circumstances, carrying out of the June session of OSCE PA in Baku is withdrawing in front of the Azerbaijani authorities, which have closed the Baku office of this organization and have declared war against the Warsaw bureau due to its negative opinion on the elections. It is difficult to understand this step.

The First European Olympic Games will be held in Baku in the summer of 2015. Shortly after this competition the parliamentary elections will be held in the country. It is very illogical and unfair that, such an event will be held in a country which lacks basic freedoms, prisons of which are full of political prisoners, where free press is mercilessly strangled, on the brink of another election fraud. Those Games shall be boycotted. Until the start of real democratic reforms under the monitoring and guarantee of the international organizations in Azerbaijan, all possible sanctions shall be applied against the Azerbaijani authorities.

Tofig Yagublu, political prisoner 17.03.2014 “

 

18 May 2014

Article on the Council of Europe, Azerbaijan and political prisoners in Europe in today’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung

Aserbaidschan verdient viel Geld mit Öl und Gas. Jetzt darf es sogar den Europarat führen. Klar, in dem Land läuft ja alles super, es gibt sogar freie Wahlen. Glaubt der Europarat.

Von Gerald Knaus

Im Januar 2013 begann in Madrid eine wunderbare Freundschaft. Die Kaukasusrepublik Aserbaidschan wurde zum Trikotsponsor des Fußballclubs Atletico Madrid, der Überraschungsmannschaft dieser Saison. Wenn Atletico am kommenden Samstag im Finale der Champions League gegen den Stadtrivalen von Real Madrid antritt, steht auf den Trikots der Spieler: „Azerbaijan – Land of Fire“. Zwölf Millionen ließ sich das Land den Werbevertrag damals kosten. Eine gute Investition: Allein das Finale der Champions League werden Hunderte Millionen Zuschauer sehen.

Mit dem Januar 2013 verbindet Aserbaidschans Führung noch ein weiteres erfreuliches Ereignis. Am 23. Januar 2013 fand eine in jeder Hinsicht historische Debatte in der Parlamentarischen Versammlung des Europarates in Straßburg statt: Am Ende stimmten 125 Abgeordnete aus ganz Europa gegen eine Resolution, die den Umgang Aserbaidschans mit politischen Gefangenen verurteilte. Nur 79 Abgeordnete votierten für die Annahme der Resolution. Noch nie in der Geschichte des Europarates hatten so viele Parlamentarier an einer Abstimmung teilgenommen.

Fast vier Jahre lang war Christoph Strässer, ein Sozialdemokrat aus Münster und Autor der Resolution, auf Widerstand gestoßen, wie ihn kein Berichterstatter in der Geschichte des Europarates zuvor je erlebt hatte. Dreimal verweigerte ihm Aserbaidschan die Einreise. Sogar von deutschen Freunden des Regimes wurde er angegriffen. Einer von ihnen, der ehemalige Bundestagsabgeordnete der Linken Hakki Keskin, beschwerte sich brieflich beim SPD-Vorsitzenden über Strässer.

Politiker aus Baku erklärten derweil unermüdlich, dass der Begriff „politischer Gefangener“ keinerlei Sinn ergäbe. Schließlich gäbe es gar keine Dissidenten im Land. In den Gefängnissen säßen lediglich Rauschgifthändler, Gewalttäter oder Terroristen. Dazu wurden internationale Konferenzen abgehalten und Abgeordnete des Europarates in großer Zahl nach Aserbaidschan eingeladen.

Als diese Sichtweise im Januar 2013 von einer Mehrheit der Abgeordneten im Parlament des Europarats bestätigt wurde, brach in der aserbaidschanischen Delegation Jubel aus. Einem Berichterstatter erschien es so, „als hätte Aserbaidschan eben die Champions League gewonnen“. Christoph Strässer erlebte dagegen einen „schwarzen Tag für den Europarat“. Bei einer Pressekonferenz in Straßburg sagte er am selben Abend: „Es stellt sich die Frage, welche Zukunft diese Organisation noch hat.“ Die Pressekonferenz war schlecht besucht. Keine der großen europäischen Zeitungen berichtete über die Abstimmung. Was ist schon der Europarat?

In Baku herrschte dagegen großer Jubel. Voller Stolz teilte der Vorsitzende der parlamentarischen Delegation Aserbaidschans mit: „Strässer muss akzeptieren, dass der Europarat Aserbaidschan gehört, und nicht ihm.“ Das stimmte sogar.

In der abgelaufenen Woche hat Aserbaidschan für ein halbes Jahr den Vorsitz im Ministerkomitee des Europarates übernommen. Das fand wieder kaum Beachtung, obwohl nun ein autoritäres Regime dem ältesten Zusammenschluss europäischer Demokratien vorsteht. Was ist schon Aserbaidschan?

Aserbaidschan ist ein reicher Ölstaat im Kaukasus, geführt von einer prunksüchtigen Familiendynastie. Die Präsidententöchter geben das Lifestylemagazin „Baku“ heraus, das auch auf Englisch erscheint, und das Regime mag es gern glitzernd. Aserbaidschan tat sich als Gastgeber von UN-Konferenzen hervor, und bald wird dort das erste Formel-1-Rennen in einer ehemaligen Sowjetrepublik stattfinden. Wo immer die lokalen Regierungen dazu bereit sind, lässt das Regime im Ausland gegen Bezahlung Statuen des 2003 verstorbenen Familienpatriarchen und ehemaligen KGB-Agenten Heydar Alijew aufstellen, in Mexico City und in Kiew, in Belgrad und in Astrachan. Nur in Niagara-on-the-Lake, einer kanadischen Kleinstadt, steht eine Büste nicht von Vater Alijew, sondern von der Frau des jetzigen Präsidenten. In Mexico wurde ein Denkmal nach Protesten wieder entfernt.

Aber solche kleine Rückschläge fallen kaum ins Gewicht. Insgesamt ist die Prestigepolitik der Herrscherfamilie ziemlich erfolgreich. Die Alijew-Stiftung restauriert katholische Kirchen in Frankreich oder einen Park in Belgrad. Auch im Philosophensaal im Kapitolinischen Museum in Rom fehlt nicht der Hinweis auf den Sponsor aus dem Kaukasus. Westlichen Denkfabriken wird Geld angeboten, damit sie in Baku Konferenzen zu allen möglichen Themen veranstalten. Nobelpreisträger werden zum „Baku International Humanitarian Forum“ geladen – 2013 kamen immerhin 13 Laureaten. Vielleicht lächelt der eine oder andere von ihnen über die neureiche Politik der Gastgeber, doch am Ende lacht die erste Familie in Baku. Denn offensichtlich sind alle scharf auf das Geld aus Aserbaidschan, und davon gibt es wegen des Energiereichtums sehr viel.

Dazu kommt eine gewisse strategische Bedeutung des Landes. Aserbaidschan ist wichtig für den Rückzug westlicher Truppen aus Afghanistan. Es unterhält eine enge Kooperation mit Israel und ist ein Horchposten westlicher Geheimdienste an der Grenze zum Iran. Auch die Aussicht auf weitere Geschäfte mit Öl und Gas spielt eine Rolle. Aserbaidschan hat klugerweise Firmen aus der ganzen Welt eingebunden, Russen, Amerikaner und Türken, British Petroleum ebenso wie die norwegische Statoil. Hohe demokratische Standards erwarten diese Partner nicht. Die vorherrschende Meinung in westlichen Hauptstädten lautet: Hauptsache, Aserbaidschan ist stabil.

Mit dem Europarat ist es ein wenig wie mit Aserbaidschan. Er ist – zumindest gefühlt – weit weg und steht nicht im Zentrum europäischer Politik. Dabei war er einmal die ehrwürdigste Institution. Er wurde nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg als geistige Union westlicher Demokratien ins Leben gerufen, zur Abgrenzung von sowjetischen und faschistischen Diktaturen. Seine Grundlage und sein Alleinstellungsmerkmal ist die 1950 im Palazzo Barberini in Rom von zehn Staaten unterzeichnete Europäische Menschenrechtskonvention, damals das stärkste verbindliche internationale Instrument zum Schutz von Menschenrechten. Weder Francos Spanien noch später das Griechenland der Militärjunta durften Mitglieder werden, Weißrussland fehlt bis heute.

Der zum Europarat gehörende, aber unabhängige Europäische Gerichtshof für Menschenrechte ist für den Schutz der Rechte von 800 Millionen Menschen zuständig. Aber die EU hat sich inzwischen auch einen Menschenrechtsbeauftragten, eine Agentur für Menschenrechte und einen Grundrechtekatalog zugelegt. Es gab in Europa überhaupt noch nie so viele Menschenrechtsbeauftragte wie heute. Es wimmelt von ihnen. Allerdings dient das nicht unbedingt dem Schutz der Menschenrechte.

Aserbaidschan musste sich 2000 zwar vor dem Europarat dazu verpflichten, keine politischen Gefangenen mehr zu machen. Doch nach 2006 wurde die Kritik an Aserbaidschan immer leiser. Heute sind die Berichterstatter des Europarats für Azerbaidschan – aus Spanien und Malta – erklärte Bewunderer der Fortschritte Aserbaidschans unter Ilham Alijew. Und Alijew ist jetzt Fan des Europarats. Anfang des Jahres sagte er in Brüssel, es könne in Aserbaidschan gar keine politischen Gefangenen geben, schließlich habe das der Europarat, „eine der wichtigsten Institutionen der Welt“ selbst festgestellt. Auch das stimmte.

Seit der denkwürdigen Straßburger Abstimmung vom Januar 2013 hat die Repression in Aserbaidschan zugenommen. Die Liste der Verhafteten aus Medien, Politik und Zivilgesellschaft ist lang. Laut Amnesty International gibt es in keinem anderen Land des Europarates so viele politische Gefangene wie in Aserbaidschan. Sie tragen komplizierte Namen: Tofiq Yagublu (fünf Jahre Haft), Yadigar Sadygov (sechs Jahre Haft), Avaz Zeynalli (neun Jahre), Rashad Ramazanov, Sardar Alibeyli, Rashad Hasanov, Uzeyir Mammadli und viele mehr. Wer merkt sich schon solche Namen? Appelle und Berichte von Menschenrechtsorganisationen, die sich für diese Leute einsetzen, verhallen ungehört.

Einige Regimegegner haben mit dem Europarat zusammengearbeitet. Zum Beispiel Ilgar Mammadov. Mammadov wurde zwei Wochen nach der Abstimmung im Januar 2013 verhaftet. Seinen Namen kannte man in Straßburg, denn er war nicht nur ein möglicher Kandidat für die aserbaidschanische Präsidentenwahl im Oktober 2013, sondern leitete auch die „Schule für Politik“, ein Demokratisierungsprojekt des Europarates in Baku. Im März 2014 wurde Mammadov unter fadenscheinigen Vorwürfen zu sieben Jahren Gefängnis verurteilt. Thorbjörn Jagland, der Generalsekretär des Europarates, schrieb eine knappe Protestnote. Genützt hat es nichts.

Bei der Präsidentenwahl wurde Alijew mit 85 Prozent der Stimmen wiedergewählt, zum dritten Mal. Die OSZE-Wahlbeobachtungsmission Odihr war dabei und zeigte sich anschließend entsetzt. Minutiös und glaubwürdig schilderten die Beobachter in ihrem Abschlussbericht die vielen Betrügereien. Auch der Europarat schickte eine Delegation in das Land. Sie kam zu dem Schluss, die Wahl sei „frei und fair“ gewesen.

Kurz nach der Wahl wurde Anar Mammadli verhaftet. Mammadli war Vorsitzender einer international angesehenen örtlichen Wahlbeobachtungsorganisation, er hatte Christoph Strässer bei seinem Bericht über politische Gefangene unterstützt. Wiederum wurden die Europäer vorgeführt – diesmal regelrecht lustvoll. Gerade erst hatte der Vorsitzende der Wahlbeobachter der Parlamentarischen Versammlung des Europarats, ein britischer Konservativer, die Präsidentenwahl gelobt. Warum sollte dagegen jemand protestieren? Ein anderer britischer Konservativer musste gute Miene zum bösen Spiel machen. Außenminister Hague nahm einen Tag nach der Verhaftung Mammadlis an der Unterzeichnung eines Vertrags von BP und Aserbaidschan über ein viele Milliarden Euro teures Gasprojekt teil.

Beseelt von den eigenen PR-Erfolgen, kennt das Regime in Baku inzwischen keine Zurückhaltung mehr. Kürzlich präsentierte der Außenminister Aserbaidschans die Prioritäten der Europaratspräsidentschaft seines Landes bei einem Ministertreffen der Mitgliedsländer. Unter anderem will Aserbaidschan Konferenzen zu Menschenrechtserziehung und der Demokratisierung der Justiz abhalten. Am Tag, als der Minister in Wien all die schönen Projekte vorstellte, wurden in Baku acht junge Aktivisten der Organisation NIDA zu langen Gefängnisstrafen verurteilt. Der Europarat schwieg dazu in Wien, auch sein Generalsekretär Jagland. Der Norweger sitzt dem Friedensnobelpreis-Komitee in Oslo vor. Es hat in der Vergangenheit einige Dissidenten und politische Gefangene ausgezeichnet, von Andrei Sacharow bis Nelson Mandela. Aber zu Aserbaidschan fällt Jagland wenig ein.

Mit dieser Zurückhaltung ist er nicht allein. Eine griechische Außenministerin, deutsche Linke, spanische Konservative, englische Liberale, polnische Exkommunisten, Lords in England, Italiener aus allen Parteien stimmen im Europarat so, wie Aserbaidschan es will. Seltsam. Sie alle haben im Januar 2013 durch ihre Stimme gegen den Bericht über politische Gefangene den Weg für die derzeitige Verhaftungswelle freigemacht. Sie alle verraten die Werte Europas.

An diese Werte erinnerten ausgerechnet jene, die in Aserbaidschan verhaftet werden. Die acht jungen NIDA-Aktivisten erinnerten an ihrem letzten Prozesstag vor wenigen Wochen an Solschenizyns Appell von 1975, nicht mit der Lüge zu leben. Solschenizyn habe geschrieben, despotische Regime seien von der Beteiligung aller an den Lügen abhängig. Er habe geschrieben, „dass der einfachste und am besten erreichbare Schlüssel zu unserer von uns selbst vernachlässigten Befreiung direkt vor uns liegt: in der Nichtteilnahme an Lügen“.

Es klingt so einfach. Aber es ist offenbar unheimlich schwer. Selbst für frei gewählte Abgeordneten aus freien Ländern.

Filed under: Azerbaijan,Council of Europe,Political prisoners — Gerald @ 11:34 am
13 May 2014

Aserbaidschan übernimmt den Vorsitz im Europarat – und der ignoriert die Menschenrechtsverletzungen des Regimes in Baku auf eine Weise, die Fragen nach Sinn und Zweck dieser Organisation aufwirft / Von Michael Martens

ISTANBUL, 13. Mai. An diesem Mittwoch übernimmt Aserbaidschan den Vorsitz im Europarat. „Europas führende Organisation für Menschenrechte“, wie sich der Europarat mit Sitz in Straßburg selbst nennt, hat 47 Mitgliedsstaaten (nur Weißrussland und das Kosovo gehören nicht dazu), mehr als 2.200 Angestellte und ein Jahresbudget von etwa 400 Millionen Euro. Die bekannteste Einrichtung des Europarats ist der Europäische Gerichtshof für Menschenrechte. Dort können Bürger aller Mitgliedsländer Klage gegen ihre Staaten einreichen, wenn diese gegen die europäische Menschenrechtskonvention verstoßen haben. Denn um Mitglied im Europarat zu werden, muss ein Staat diese Konvention unterzeichnet haben und sich daran halten – theoretisch zumindest.

Nun wird also Aserbaidschan den Europarat repräsentieren, und in Baku werden in den kommenden Monaten aufwendige Konferenzen über die Bedeutung der Menschenrechte abgehalten. Viele Gäste werden kommen, denn obwohl Aserbaidschan kaum mehr als neun Millionen Einwohner hat, ist es für den Westen (und für Europa insbesondere) politisch wichtig. Eine geplante Gasleitung von Aserbaidschan über Georgien, die Türkei und Griechenland bis nach Italien könnte ein wichtiger Baustein zur Verringerung der europäischen Energieabhängigkeit von Russland werden. Ein „demokratischer Lieferant“ wäre Aserbaidschan allerdings ebenfalls nicht. Aserbaidschans Präsident Ilham Alijew, der das höchste Staatsamt von seinem Vater erbte, einem ehemaligen KGB-Agenten, ist ein Diktator, der mit eiserner Faust über sein Land herrscht und Oppositionelle verfolgen lässt. Dieser Tage hat „Reporter ohne Grenzen“ (ROG) aufgelistet, wie es aserbaidschanischen Journalisten, die das Regime in Baku zu kritisieren wagen oder gar zu Machtmissbrauch und Menschenrechtsverletzungen recherchieren, reihenweise ergeht: Sie werden durch die vom Regime kontrollierte Justiz zu Haftstrafen wegen Rauschgiftbesitzes, Spionage für Armenien, Anstiftung zu Unruhen, Waffenschmuggels oder ähnlicher fingierter Delikte verurteilt. „Aserbaidschan übt in den kommenden sechs Monaten ein herausragendes Amt innerhalb Europas aus, doch gleichzeitig tritt die Regierung unter Präsident Alijew die Pressefreiheit mit Füßen“, stellt ROG dazu fest.

Auch das State Department äußert sich in seinem jährlichen Menschenrechtsbericht deutlich und stellt unter anderem fest, dass das Regime in Aserbaidschan nicht nur gewaltsam gegen Journalisten und Menschenrechtsaktivisten vorgehe, Wahlbeobachter kriminalisiere oder mit Ausreiseverboten belege, sondern auch Übergriffe gegen Regierungsgegner nicht ahnde. Die Privatsphäre von Oppositionellen werde verletzt (eine Journalistin sollte mit in ihrem Schlafzimmer aufgenommenen Bildern erpresst werden, die sie beim Geschlechtsverkehr mit ihrem Partner zeigen), die Religionsfreiheit eingeschränkt. Mehrere Dutzend junge Männer kamen während ihrer Wehrdienstzeit unter ungeklärten Umständen ums Leben. Die Menschenrechtsorganisation „Human Rights Watch“ stellt es ähnlich dar: „Die Regierung Aserbaidschans schränkt systematisch jede Art von regierungskritischem Verhalten ein.“ Über die aserbaidschanischen Präsidentenwahlen im Oktober fällte die Wahlbeobachtermission der Organisation für Sicherheit und Zusammenarbeit in Europa (OSZE) ein vernichtendes Urteil: Einschränkungen der Presse- und Versammlungsfreiheit sowie die Einschüchterung von Wählern und Oppositionskandidaten gehörten gleichsam zum Standardprogramm des Regimes. Am Wahltag selbst wurden die Beobachter auch Zeugen unverfrorener Manipulationen. In Wahllokalen wurden die Urnen mit gefälschten Wahlzetteln vollgestopft, in fast 60 Prozent der beobachteten Fälle war die Stimmauszählung von Betrug begleitet und wurde als „schlecht“ oder „sehr schlecht“ bewertet. Unter anderen wurden Stummzettel „umgeschrieben“.

Aserbaidschan ist reich an Rohstoffen und arm an Rechtstaatlichkeit. Mitte April traten acht aserbaidschanische Männer in einen Hungerstreik, um gegen einen Schauprozess zu demonstrieren, dessen Ausgang von vornherein feststand. In der vergangenen Woche wurden die Männer zu Haftstrafen von bis zu acht Jahren verurteilt. Es handelt sich nicht um Islamisten oder Rauschgifthändler, sondern um Bürgerrechtler und Mitglieder einer demokratischen Jugendgruppe. „Leider sieht es so aus, als sei Alijew mit seiner Kampagne zur Unterminierung europäischer Standards und der sie tragenden Institutionen erfolgreich“, sagt Gerald Knaus von der „Europäischen Stabilitätsinitiative“, einer in Berlin und Istanbul beheimateten Denkfabrik, die sich seit Jahren mit der Lage in Aserbaidschan befasst. „Es ist erschreckend, dass sich junge aserbaidschanische Demokraten unmittelbar vor der Übernahme des Vorsitzes im Europarat durch Aserbaidschan in einem verzweifelten Versuch, die Außenwelt auf ihre Lage aufmerksam zu machen, zu einem Hungerstreik gezwungen sehen“, so Knaus.

Sogar ehemalige aserbaidschanische Mitarbeiter des Europarats sind unter den Verhafteten. Doch im Europarat selbst ist es  nicht möglich, die Dinge beim Namen zu nennen. Jedenfalls lehnte die Parlamentarische Versammlung des Europarats im vergangenen Jahr die Annahme eines umfangreichen Berichts zur Lage politischer Gefangener in Aserbaidschan mit 125 zu 79 Stimmen und zum Teil haarsträubenden Begründungen ab. Warum schweigt der Europarat zur desaströsen Menschenrechtslage in einem seiner Mitgliedsstaaten? Man soll sich Verschwörungstheorien hüten, aber drei Umstände sind bedenkenswert. Erstens: Der sogenannte südliche Korridor könnte Gaslieferungen Aserbaidschans über die Türkei in die EU-Staaten Griechenland und Italien (und von dort in weitere Mitgliedsländer) sicherstellen. Zweitens: Die Annahme eines Berichts über die desolate Lage politischer Gefangener in Aserbaidschan durch die Abgeordneten der parlamentarischen Versammlung des Europarats wurde nicht nur von den üblichen Verdächtigen (Russland, Aserbaidschan, Türkei) abgelehnt, sondern mehrheitlich auch von den Abgeordneten aus Italien und Griechenland, so von der ehemaligen griechischen Außenministerin Dora Bakogiannis. Drittens: Zur gleichen Zeit, als in Straßburg mit Hilfe der griechischen und italienischen Abgeordneten ein vom Europarat in Auftrag gegebener kritischer Bericht über Aserbaidschans Umgang mit Regimegegnern niedergestimmt wurde, führte der staatliche aserbaidschanische Energiekonzern Socar bereits Verhandlungen mit der Regierung Griechenlands über den Kauf des griechischen Gasnetzwerks Desfa. Im Dezember 2013 wurde in Athen der Abschluss verkündet. Socar unterzeichnete eine Vereinbarung zum Kauf von 66 Prozent der Anteile an Desfa für 400 Millionen Euro.

Zwischen diesen Entwicklungen muss kein Zusammenhang bestehen, aber ignorieren muss man sie auch nicht. Fest steht, dass das Regime in Baku seinen Sieg bei der Abstimmung im Europarat zu Hause für eine neue Verhaftungswelle genutzt hat. Die Nachricht des Regimes an alle Gegner in Gefängnissen und vor der Verhaftung lautete: Ihr habt keine Chance, denn wir sind gegen euch – und der Westen ist mit uns. Schon als Aserbaidschan 2001 in den Europarat aufgenommen wurde, war es alles andere als eine solide Demokratie, doch die fromme Hoffnung lautete, die Lage in dem Kaukasusstaat werde sich mit der Zeit verbessern und der Europarat werde Aserbaidschan europäisieren. Stattdessen ist es Baku offenbar gelungen, die Mehrheit des Europarats zu aserbaidschanisieren. Die Menschenrechtslage in Aserbaidschan hat sich in den vergangenen Jahren nicht nur nicht verbessert, sondern verschlechtert.  Eigentlich sollte Aserbaidschans Vorsitz eine Debatte darüber entfachen, wie ernst der Europarat seine eigenen Konventionen noch nimmt. Jedenfalls haben jene Mitgliedsstaaten, die echte Demokratien sind, Anlass zu der Frage, was diese Institution noch sein kann und soll – und was ihre Gründungsmitglieder dafür tun können, um die Werte aufrechtzuerhalten, in deren Namen die Organisation einst gegründet wurde. Derzeit ist die Lage des Europarates ebenso bedenklich wie die Lage Aserbaidschans.

 

Filed under: Azerbaijan,Council of Europe,Human rights — Gerald @ 1:18 am
6 May 2014

Rashadat Akhundov, NIDA activist, sentenced to eight years in jail in May 2014 with seven other activists.

A graduate of the Central European University in Budapest.


This morning Azerbaijan’s most courageous investigative journalist, Khadija Ismayilova, published (unfortunately expected) bad news from Baku: the verdict in the case against NIDA youth activists in Azerbaijan:

“Verdict is announced. Democracy activists from Nida! Civic Union are sentenced for exercising their right of freedom of assembly:
Rashadat Akhundov = 8 years
Zaur Gurbanli = 8 years
Ilkin Rustemzade = 8 years
Bakhtiyar Guliyev = 7 years
Mammad Azizov = 7.5 years
Rashad Hasanov = 7.5 years
Uzeyir Mammadli = 7 years
Shahin Novruzlu = 6 years”

This verdict comes on the eve of the visit to Azerbaijan by the secretary general of the Council of Europe, Thorbjorn Jagland, and almost exactly one week before Azerbaijan takes over the chairmanship of the Council of Europe.

ESI has written a lot on this issue recently – and I have written on it here a few days ago.  We will publish more in the coming weeks.

On this sad day for human rights in Europe – on this truly shameful day for the Council of Europe and its member states, who have failed dissidents and human rights defenders in Azerbaijan – the best is to let the NIDA activists speak for themselves. Here is the speech they delivered in court on 5 May. These voices will not be silenced:

Bakhtiyar Guliyev, Shahin Novruzlu, Mahammad Azizov, Reshad Hasanov,  Rashadat Akhundov, Uzeyir Mammadli, Zaur Gurbanli, İlkin Rustemzade

Date: 01/05/2014

To the Baku Court on Grave Crimes

 

Dear Court,

Dear trial participants,

We, as defendants, have decided to represent ourselves as one person for our last speech to the court. The reason for this is that the government does not see us as individuals, but rather targets the NIDA civil movement that we are members of and subjects it to repression. You may consider our last plea as coming both from the eight NIDA activists present here and other NIDA activists who are either free or under arrest.

Usually, defendants ask for mercy from the court, and sometimes express their regret. We don’t need mercy, nor do we feel regretful, since we have not done anything to regret. Nor do we expect justice from the court that is hearing this fabricated lawsuit, as it is not capable of maintaining the sanctity of the law and making independent and just decisions. The hollowness and meaninglessness of this lawsuit have been unconditionally proven by the truths we have told, the statements made by witnesses, as well as other evidence presented by the defense in their high quality speeches.

The start of the smear campaign against NIDA was made obvious during the first days of the arrests – when Mammad Azizov, Bakhtiyar Guliyev and Shahin Novruzlu were forced to sign completely slanderous texts, memorize them and then recite them in front of cameras after being subjected to physical violence and torture. During this, TV channels continuously disseminated videos provided to them by the Interior Ministry, and government spokespeople and members of parliament made statements implying NIDA aims to create chaos in society.

 

Ilham Aliyev, president of Azerbaijan since 2003.


There was no doubt that these repressions were politically motivated after President Ilham Aliyev named us as criminals during the YAP (New Azerbaijan Party) assembly on June 7, 2013, when investigations were still ongoing and no valid court verdict had been issued. This statement was the decision that sealed our fate. This decision framed the judicial investigation.

Under such circumstances, we are aware of the fact that neither the state prosecutor, nor you, the judges, have any other options to pursue. Your responsibilities in the court are limited to acting as notaries to legitimize this politically motivated order. Even if the law and your conscience demand you to act otherwise, you shall not dare stray from this order. 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?

We do not intend to go deeply through all the details of the case. Because it’s already obvious that even as a pseudo case they could not manage to organize it more maturely and systematically. Nevertheless, we will go through several issues.

The prosecution claims we were arrested due to a protest on March 10. This is partly true.

Why partly and why true? And why shouldn’t we regret this?

Let’s begin from the very first question. As to the prosecution’s testimony, they imprisoned us due to our social activity and particularly for our activity within the NIDA civic movement. But it was not because of events on March 10. NIDA managed to involve mature and active youth in its membership. At the time we hadn’t announced that we were totally opposed to the government. Meanwhile, the government was already against us. Because this regime is an enemy to all active and valuable people who want to spoil its plans for society to remain passive, villainous, obedient and enslaved. Thus, the government is a direct foe to the youth who are indicators of activism, dynamism and who are against slavery. 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 of a criminal nature. 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.

If there is any sign of a tendency for violence, solely the government is responsible for it. As the government creates unlawful conditions, people become more aggressive and want revenge. Of course, it encourages a bias towards violence. Being a civic movement, we did our best to prevent physical confrontation and propagate nonviolent struggle. We used numerous examples from global experience that prove that nonviolent struggle is far better than violence. Ironically however, we were accused of violence. Our criminal case took its place at the top of the list of ridiculous crimes in the world.

And shall we regret it?!

We are arrested for and proud of demanding freedom, rule of law, and human rights for the nation we belong to, for the land we are residents of.

Everyone has clearly seen the torture and abasement that the first three arrested activists have encountered. But unfortunately, the court didn’t even attempt to investigate the case. The court process is enough to eliminate these testimonies from the list of evidence. But of course only an independent and fair court could precisely evaluate and take the necessary course in this way, not you!

 

NIDA trial

 

Observers [of this trial] probably remember the testimony of Anar Abbasov, the main witness of the prosecution, whose addiction to drugs and mental problems was evident even without a professional examination. His testimony became an exercise in contradiction. He couldn’t describe the Venice café [where according to the indictment, he witnessed the activists’ discussion of their plan for violent action], he didn’t even know what NIDA! (exclamation) means, he couldn’t recognize the people, whom, according to the indictment, he identified as participants of the violence-planning meeting, he couldn’t remember anyone’s name, his testimony was a bunch of nonsensical  words about NIDA and Venice. That witness was in fact the best proof of our innocence.

The government accuses us of cooperation with foreign groups. Just imagine, the accusation of using violence comes from the government, which came to power via a military coup, which used arms for violence against its own people including the events of October 15-16, 2003, the assassinations of dozens of the best thinkers, like Elmar Huseynov, Ziya Bunyadov, Rafik Tagi. It comes from the government that has its own people’s blood on its hands. And yes, it is the irony of history.

Unlike the YAP members who would trade away Azerbaijan’s interests to foreign countries, who would do anything in order to maintain the dominance of the ruling party, we NIDA activists have never been slaves of the Russian KGB, nor have we worshipped the U.S. or European oil magnates’ money, nor followed the Iranian mullah’s and Turkish Nurchu’s ways. NIDA activists are patriots ready to sacrifice their youth and lives for the sake of the nation without the slightest hesitation. The charges imposed on us are simply the government projecting its ugly nature onto us.

Having touched upon the foreign affairs issues, we would like to share our opinion on the case of the Ministry of National Security stealing AZN 94,000 from Shahin Novruzlu’s father and calling it a crime. There was enough evidence provided by the witnesses at the hearing to prove that this money belonged to Shahin’s family. We can compare this to another incident. 12 September 1980, the junta that came to power by military coup in Turkey, staying loyal to their methods, executed 17-year-old Erdal Eren. A great republic with 100 years of history like Turkey still is not able to clean the stain called Erdal Eren. After 33 years, in Azerbaijan Erdal’s peer Shahin is being accused by YAP, and loyal to their values they stole Shahin’s father’s money. The military men do what they are used to – murder, YAP members do what they are used to do – theft.

While governments are transitory, be sure of the fact that Shahin’s arrest and the theft of his family’s, in particular his aunt’s hard-earned money will hang over Azerbaijan’s shoulders like the Sword of Damocles, and we as a nation and a country in general will always be ashamed of it.

Two of us have been charged with hooliganism because of a simple dance. However, this dance doesn’t have any signs of hooliganism, not to mention any criminal implications. The evidence provided and the defense speeches have proven this. Therefore, in our final speech we would rather talk about the main reason for the arrests than the legal aspects. The objective of introducing this article to our case is to present us as “immoral” to society. This is precisely why the host of the disgraceful Lider TV, who has previously presented pornographic scenes shot by secret cameras, now misinformed the public by making fun of our alleged participation in the dance (deliberately misrepresenting the facts as if the eight people sitting here are in fact the eight people who are seen in the Harlem Shake video). However, despite their cheap and meaningless efforts, the dance cannot be considered as immoral. Immorality is to steal or sell parliamentary seats, falsify elections, be an oligarch or rip off the nation of its last piece of bread. The fight against this immorality is the most honourable, glorious and moral job to do.

Our court case, with each of its details, has discredited the government and shown its real face. Please pay closer attention to the above-mentioned witness, Anar Abbasov. He is a bright example of the zombie population that Aliyev’s regime has been trying to bring up for the last 21 years. This “new Azerbaijani” is meant to be cowardly and sinful, his morality must be tainted with slavery and sycophancy, he should be able to slander even his own brother when the time comes, he should be corrupt enough not to dare to stand against even a slight injustice with a life credo of adulation of the authorities and hypocrisy. In the past 21 years, the ruling party was considerably successful with their mission of creating this “new breed of Azerbaijanis”.

Solshenitsyn (in Soviet prison)

Solshenitsyn 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.

The NIDA civic movement tried to resist and prevent a complete victory of this government’s policy. Our and other members’ ongoing arrests, openly demonstrated anger and irritation we came across prove that we are on the right track to hamper this policy. Our determined resistance, persistent position and speaking the truth (despite the benefits of the government’s side) couldn’t have been achieved in any other way.

There is something they do not realize. If there is an evil happening in one place, even if everyone turns their faces away, those who are humane have to face it. We as free men cannot turn a blind eye to evil, immorality, and in general the government’s misdeeds; we will only bow in front of a righteous power. The ideology of the Republic sees it as evil to live under someone else’s despotic regime (will), because slavery creates the worst of its consequences- a state of vagrancy and sycophancy. We as true republicans, despite the dangers, will not trade freedom for the comforts of slave lives!

Therefore, the regime’s police and other power structures’ violent and brutal actions disguised as “service to law”, presenting our constitutional right of freely gathering as a riot, calling our peaceful struggle a violent act, and our fabricated arrests do not scare us and will not make us back away from our position. The clarity of our fundamental principles, and our loyalty to them, our complete rejection of radicalism, immorality and violence are the reasons why hundreds of people with a similar ideology joined our cause in the course of the past year.

As mentioned earlier, our participation in this court is a mere formality. Our plea to be acquitted from these falsified criminal charges is also a formality. But we are confident that acquittal will come not from the court but from our people and history. There is another reason for coming to the court and giving this “final speech”. We value the court system as a foundation of the state and guarantor of social justice. We respect and honour the splendour carried in the word – court. Therefore, despite the fact that the standards of this court falls far below these criteria, out of respect to the judge and the court we are obeying the formal procedures and continue to strive to do so.

Sahin Novruzlu, the youngest activist, was 17 at the time of his arrest

 

The final word has yet to be uttered. The final word will sooner or later come from the nation that stands for the arrested ten [meaning the eight NIDA activists in this case and Abdul Abilov and Omar Mammadov – two Facebook prisoners facing trumped-up drug charges] NIDA activists, and our counterparts.

 


Socrates

The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates was brought to court under the accusation that he was poisoning the thoughts of youths. He could have left the country or accepted to stay silent, to not spread his ideas.  Otherwise, he knew that he would be executed. At the trial, Socrates declared that he would not sacrifice the truth for his freedom and life, and chose death.  We will also not sell the truth for anything – whether we’re free or jailed.

We are not alone.  Our determined intellectuals and public figures – the Chairman of “REAL” Ilgar Mammadov, Deputy Chairman of “Musavat” Tofig Yagublu, Yadigar Sadigov, Gurban Mammadov, Anar Mammadli, main representative of the believers in Azerbaijan, Taleh Baghirzade, our falsely accused young friends Ebdul Ebilov, Omar Mammadov, Elsever Murselli, Rashad Ramazanli, journalists Rauf Mirgadirov, Perviz Heshimli and dozens of other prisoners of conscience and political prisoners, are kept in jail under false pretences, specifically for telling the truth. 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.

Even though we have reached a level of corruption that has no parallels, we know that the exams for the selection of the judges and prosecutors for our cases are challenging. Because of that, our judges and prosecutors, usually, have to possess some knowledge of law. We do not doubt that the current panel of judges and the public prosecutor in front of us also possess a high degree of legal literacy.  This is also evident from the fact that Azerbaijan’s strongest lawyers are defending us and you have specifically been chosen to go against them, the political order of making a case for these absurd allegations has been given specifically to you.

The ultimate aim of the law is to provide justice. You, also, possess the qualifications to professionally determine justice.  It is impossible for you not to see that these allegations are frivolous and this, we are sure, you do not doubt.  Because of that, it will be very hard for you to give us our sentence.  Because the trial of conscience that comes forward from the honour of one’s profession and humanity is harder than the trial of this sort.  Despite this, comfort will conquer conscience and you will read out our conviction.   For this reason, we do not ask anything from you. Quite the opposite, in order to calm your conscience, to give you comfort, we are letting you know that the years that are being taken from our lives with your sentencing are not going to waste.  It is a capital investment in the freedom of Azerbaijan. So, even though you may be an anti-hero, you are also doing something for this country.

We took into consideration that we are a capital investment in freedom when we started this journey.  Now, can we be sorry for the accusations, for the thoughts and actions which we did not commit?!

We declare once again that we are confident and you should be confident, that because of our desire for freedom for this nation of which we are part of, this region in which we are residing, because freedom, democracy, rule of law are of the highest value and the rights and freedoms of the citizens of this country should be respected, because of our efforts in this sphere we have been arrested and of this we are proud.

We ask our friends, peers, and specifically our parents to be ready for a heavy sentence and not to give way to hysteria, damnation, or insults. Everyone aside from the foreigners are victims in this courtroom and it is inconsequential and meaningless for a victim to curse out another victim.

We say thank you to everyone who took part in defending us, including those who share our beliefs, to our family that is always with us, to little Araz, to our lawyers who selflessly defended us. We express our gratitude to the local and international human rights organizations, parties, and other organizations, foreign states and their embassies working towards restoring our rights. We are grateful to the representatives of foreign embassies and international organizations who have participated in our trial for half a year, because they have also proven that the Western values which we have been defending are not based on oil, or geostrategic material interest, but on freedom and justice.

Lastly, from here we want to reach out to the NIDA fighters outside. During Soviet times, a seven-member organization called “Ildirim” [“Thunder”], of which all seven members were jailed for their anti-Soviet efforts, Ismikhan Rahimov-a member turned to his relatives after his sentence was read, while being placed in a vehicle and said: “We are leaving, but we will be back.”

Now, we are delivering to you the words of Sir Ismakhan in another form:  We are not going anywhere and coming back.  Because we exist anyway, we are here, with you. Even if ten members of NIDA are in jail, those of you who are free are replacing us.  We call on you to continue the fight for us with even more principal and relentlessness.  Do not ever surrender to slander! Hold your heads high, your wills strong!

Down with dictatorship and despotism!

Long live the people who do not bow to oppression and injustice!

Rashadat Akhundov

Rashad Hasanov

Uzeyir Mammadli

Zaur Gurbanli

Ilkin Rustamzade

Bakhtiyar Guliyev

Shahin Novruzlu

Mammad Azizov

 

Filed under: Azerbaijan,Europe,Human rights,Uncategorized — Gerald @ 11:22 am
4 May 2014

 

In recent  years the government of Azerbaijan has been playing cat and mouse with the Council of Europe. In a recent newsletter (Hunger strike, European values and an Open Letter) and in an open letter to PACE members we  suggested what might be done in response:

  • Call on President Ilham Aliyev to give amnesty to Ilgar Mammadov, Anar Mammadli and the eight young activists on hunger strike before Azerbaijan assumes the chairmanship of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers on 14 May 2014;
  • Call on the Secretary General of the Council of Europe to travel to Azerbaijan urgently, and speak out strongly and forcefully on behalf of these and many other political prisoners;
  • Support an initiative to appoint a new rapporteur on political prisoners to investigate the trend of imprisonment in Azerbaijan since the vote in January 2013.

Now at least one of these things appears to be happening:  Mr. Jagland is going to Baku.

“The Secretary General of the Council of Europe is going to discuss the topic of political prisoners

The human rights situation in Azerbaijan will be one of the main topics on the agenda of the upcoming May 8th visit to Baku of the Secretary General of the Council of Europe Thorbjorn Jagland. It is learned from sources in Strasbourg that Yangland will also affect the situation with the detention of IPD director Leyla Yunus and her husband Arif Yunusov and pressure on them. Also touched upon will be the political prisoners and the need to address this problem due to commence in May of the chairmanship of Azerbaijan in the Committee of Ministers. “

Of course, it remains to be seen what will come out of this visit. However, the mere fact of Mr. Jagland going to Baku should raise expectations. Mr. Jagland has a legacy to defend.  He has been secretary general since September 2009. He is also running for reelection for a second term in a few weeks’ time.

There is little that a secretary general can do directly to prevent member states of the Council of Europe from violating human rights. However, one thing a secretary general must do is speak out openly about systemic violations of human rights in a member state. Today the credibility of the whole institution is at stake as a result of Azerbaijan’s years of abuse of its principles. It is thus crucial that Mr. Jagland achieves something on his forthcoming visit to Baku.

Developments in recent days have added to this urgency. There has been further harassment of distinguished Azerbaijani human rights defenders – and this at the very moment when Azerbaijan presented its program for the chairmanship of the Council of Europe (see below). In the next six months the Azerbaijani government proposes to host events to discuss the role of human rights education, the work of judges in defending human rights, the future of youth … while at the same time it hosts show trials against human rights defenders, journalists and youth activists. Can any of these events be taken seriously while Azerbaijan engages in this cynical behaviour?

Recent days saw: the arrest of journalist Rauf Mirkadirov. The arrest of Leyla Yunus and her husband Arif Yunus.  The persecution of critical thinkers on espionage charges. With rare exceptions, such as the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, most European policy makers have remained silent.  (See also this statement by Catherine Ashton and Stefan Füle).


In contrast, the NIDA youth activists, on hunger strike for two weeks, made a remarkable statement at the close of their trial in Baku last week. Their moral courage in the face of injustice puts to shame the current ineffective human rights protection machinery in Strasbourg. It also casts a shadow over the very notion of Azerbaijan as a chairman of the Council of Europe. In their final speech in court, after 15 days of hunger strike, the NIDA activists evoked the great dissidents of the Soviet period to explain their motivation:

Solschenitzyn in his “Live Not By Lies” wrote about despotic regimes’ dependence on everyone’s participation in lies.  He wrote that the simplest and most accessible key to our self-neglected liberation lies right here: in personal non-participation in lies. This is what Nida does.

Nida civil movement tried to resist and prevent a complete victory of this government’s policy. Our and other members’ ongoing arrests, openly demonstrated anger and irritation prove that we are on the right track to hamper this policy.”

They also directly addressed the judges and prosecutors:

“… in order to calm your conscience, to give you comfort, we are letting you know that the years that are being taken from our lives with your sentence are not going to waste. It is a capital investment for the freedom of Azerbaijan. So, even though you may be an anti-hero, you are also doing some things for this country.”

This is a speech and political activism in the tradition of non-violent resistance to authoritarianism of Liu Xiaobo. In the tradition of defending human rights as done by Andrei Sacharov.   In the tradition of the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize given to Amnesty International.

 

Andrei Sacharov – Nobel Prize Winning former political prisoner

This makes it all the more poignant that the recent increase in repression and in the number of arrests of human rights defenders are happening at a time when the secretary general of the Council of Europe is also the Chair of the  Nobel Peace Prize Committee.

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.

 

100 years ago: arrests could not break them: Suffragette in London

East European dissidents are not the only proud tradition which events in Baku bring to mind today.

One hundred years ago, in 1913, the British government passed what became known as the Cat and Mouse Act to break the will of a group of courageous women – the suffragettes – fighting for the right to vote. The law was called the Prisoners, Temporary Discharge for Health Act:

“The Liberal government of Asquith had been highly embarrassed by the hunger strike tactic of the Suffragettes. Many of the more famous Suffragettes were from middle class backgrounds and were educated. When some suffragettes were arrested they would go on hunger strike. This was a deliberate policy to bring attention to their cause and also to embarrass the government.To counter this, the government resorted to force-feeding those women on hunger-strike – an act usually reserved for those held in what were then called lunatic asylums. This simple act greatly embarrassed the government.

To get around this, the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ was introduced. The logic behind this was simple: a Suffragette would be arrested; she would go on hunger strike; the authorities would wait until she was too weak (through lack of food) to do any harm if in public. She would then be released ‘on licence’. Once out of prison, it was assumed that the former prisoner would start to eat once again and re-gain her strength over a period of time. If she committed an offence while out on licence, she would be immediately re-arrested and returned to prison. Here, it was assumed that she would then go back on hunger strike … The nickname of the act came about because of a cat’s habit of playing with its prey (a mouse) before finishing it off.”

The suffragettes were fighting for a then radical idea – women having the same political rights as men – just as NIDA activists are defending the radical idea that the European Convention on Human Rights and its provisions also apply to Azerbaijan. The goal of the British government at the time was to break their will, without too much embarrassment, by playing cat and mouse. The same is happening in Baku today.

In the end, history was not on the side of the British government .  Today, history is not on the side of the regime in Baku. Mr. Jagland might evoke the long tradition of political prisoners his Nobel Peace Prize Committee has honoured. He might also recall the history of the Suffragettes. And tell president Ilham Aliyev that he is on the wrong side of history. It might not work this time. But at the very least, the Council of Europe should not be on the wrong side of history too.

Suffragette poster – UK early 20th century

 

PS:  Is it possible for a dictatorship, imprisoning its own human rights defenders, to plan a full Council of Europe chairmanship programme, without ever drawing attention to its own abysmal human rights record? And if it is, what does this tell us about the state of the institution?

Find below the draft program of the Azerbaijani Council of Europe chairmanship. Will any of the participants from across Europe even blush when they are being welcomed by the regime of Aliyev to discuss the following?

20 to 21 May: Meeting of coordinators of the Council of Europe Charter of Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights

22 to 23 May: Meetings of the PACE Bureau and Standing Committee

1 to 30 June: Conference on Public service delivery in the context of human rights and good governance

17 June: Meeting of the CLRAE Bureau

18 to 20 June: Baku Conference of European Ombudspersons

20 to 21 June: Conference on the new “Council of Europe Platform on the Impact of Digitisation on Culture”

30 June to 1 July: High-level conference on combating corruption

3 to 4 July: Plenary meeting for the European Commission for the Efficiency of Justice

1 to 2 September: Annual exchange meeting on religious dimension of intercultural dialogue

1 to 30 September: Platform meeting on youth foundation and financing structures

10 to 11 September: Seminar to review the Council of Europe Social Cohesion Strategy and Action Plan

18 to 21 September: High-level conference on the Council of Europe Neighbourhood Policy

1 to 5 October: Event within the “No hate speech movement” of the Council of Europe

6 to 9 October: Celebration of European Heritage Days 2014

10 to 11 October: High-level conference on the role of national judges on enhancing domestic application of the ECHR

20 to 26 October: The 4th regional ministerial meeting on the implementation of the European Higher Education Area

28 to 30 October: UN Global Forum on Youth

30 to 31 October: Cultural Routes Advisory Forum Policy

 

Recommended reading:

Solschenitsyn – Live not by Lies (1974)

So in our timidity, let each of us make a choice: Whether consciously, to remain a servant of falsehood—of course, it is not out of inclination, but to feed one’s family, that one raises his children in the spirit of lies—or to shrug off the lies and become an honest man worthy of respect both by one’s children and contemporaries.

And from that day onward he:

  • Will not henceforth write, sign, or print in any way a single phrase which in his opinion distorts the truth.
  • Will utter such a phrase neither in private conversation not in the presence of many people, neither on his own behalf not at the prompting of someone else, either in the role of agitator, teacher, educator, not in a theatrical role.
  • Will not depict, foster or broadcast a single idea which he can only see is false or a distortion of the truth whether it be in painting, sculpture, photography, technical science, or music.
  • Will not cite out of context, either orally or written, a single quotation so as to please someone, to feather his own nest, to achieve success in his work, if he does not share completely the idea which is quoted, or if it does not accurately reflect the matter at issue.
  • Will not allow himself to be compelled to attend demonstrations or meetings if they are contrary to his desire or will, will neither take into hand not raise into the air a poster or slogan which he does not completely accept.
  • Will not raise his hand to vote for a proposal with which he does not sincerely sympathize, will vote neither openly nor secretly for a person whom he considers unworthy or of doubtful abilities.
  • Will not allow himself to be dragged to a meeting where there can be expected a forced or distorted discussion of a question. Will immediately talk out of a meeting, session, lecture, performance or film showing if he hears a speaker tell lies, or purvey ideological nonsense or shameless propaganda.
  • Will not subscribe to or buy a newspaper or magazine in which information is distorted and primary facts are concealed. Of course we have not listed all of the possible and necessary deviations from falsehood. But a person who purifies himself will easily distinguish other instances with his purified outlook.

No, it will not be the same for everybody at first. Some, at first, will lose their jobs. For young people who want to live with truth, this will, in the beginning, complicate their young lives very much, because the required recitations are stuffed with lies, and it is necessary to make a choice.

But there are no loopholes for anybody who wants to be honest. On any given day any one of us will be confronted with at least one of the above-mentioned choices even in the most secure of the technical sciences. Either truth or falsehood: Toward spiritual independence or toward spiritual servitude.

 

 

 

 

Filed under: Azerbaijan,Europe,Human rights,United Kingdom — Gerald @ 10:39 am
8 March 2014

In October 1935 the Italian army invaded Abyssinia. In the same month the Abyssinians appealed to the League of Nations for help. The League condemned the attack. All League members were ordered to impose economic sanctions on Mussolini’s Italy. Then all resolve faltered.

Sanctions were half-hearted. They did not include vital materials such as oil. Britain kept open the Suez Canal, crucial as Italy supplied her armed forces. In December 1935 the British Foreign Secretary and the French Prime Minister met and presented a plan that gave large areas of Abyssinia to Italy. Mussolini accepted the plan.

The League’s involvement was a total failure.The capital, Addis Ababa, fell in May 1936 and Haile Selassie was replaced by the king of Italy. Somaliland, Eritrea and Abyssinia became Italian East Africa. The League of Nations was a corpse even before it perished. It had no more legitimacy.

DL0929

The Crimea crisis and events in Ukraine today pose a similar threat to the credibility of other European organisations … created, like the League, in the wake of a devastating war with high hopes of launching a new era.  And one organisation already  in the crosshair of the dictator’s assault, already reeling, which Russia was able to join under false pretext and then proceeded to capture with the support of other autocrats in the East and accomplices from the West is the Council of Europe.

Until a few weeks ago one could fear that the Azerbaijani presidency of the Council of Europe, set to begin a few weeks from now in Strasbourg,  would mark the low-point in the history of this once proud organisation. And one might have hoped that, perhaps, it was still possible that the sight of a dictator at the helm of this club of democracies might produce a long overdue shock; wake up democrats across Europe, to pay attention to an institution once created to embody the values of post-war Europe (stated in the European Convention on Human Rights) and recently captured by autocrats from Europe’s east.

Until a few weeks ago I thought there was time to rescue these institutions. Certainly, that it was worth it Today there is good cause to wonder whether the Abyssinia moment has not now also come for Strasbourg.

Unless the Council of Europe reacts to the dramatic illegal occupation of one member state by another member state; unless PACE – the Parliamentary Assembly – issues a strong and unequivocal declaration; unless member states in the Committee of Ministers now take effective actions against Russia; it is hard to see how this “spiritual union” of European democracies can survive as more than a bureaucratic corpse.

It is not hard to envisage a future for the OSCE in this new, harsher, Europe: it will return to being a forum for debates between dictatorships and democracies, similar to the CSCE after the Helsinki Accords were ratified in the 1970s.  It has long been obvious that countries such as Uzbekistan, Belarus, Russia or Azerbaijan are not democracies. The notion that they should participate in setting  high standards for European democracies – which need these standards as much now as ever – debases everyone. Instead let diplomats meet in Vienna and talk (and exchange insults) about peace and common interests. Such a forum is useful as long as it does not serve to legitimize dictatorial rule as “democratic.”

The same is not true for the Council of Europe. Between the  OSCE and the EU it has no future if it does not credibly defend the highest values of democracy. The demise of its credibility creates a void that also needs to be filled: most probably by the European Union, now called upon to define its own human rights acquis more explicitly.

The EU should make human rights central to its association agreements. It should spell out its “political criteria” much clearer, both for accession candidates and for its own members. It should find ways to cooperate with other genuine democracies, from Switzerland to Norway to Moldova in the East.

Of course it would be preferable to preserve the Council of Europe and see dictators such as Putin and Aliyev censured instead, until their countries change their ways. But this looks increasingly unlikely. Instead we will have an Azerbaijani presidency and not even symbolic sanctions against Russia after its aggression.

The Palace of Europe in StrasbourgThe Palace of Europe in Strasbourg

It is hard to see is how the Council of Europe can function much longer as a hostage of dictatorial and aggressive members. They pay an important share of its budget. They are bent on destroying the values it once stood for. And for some time now they have imposed their vision of the world with impunity.

It should also be noted that there would still be a lot worth rescuing  from the burning house of the Palace of Europe, the Council of Europe’s headquarter in Strasbourg. Conventions, agreements, commissions, initiatives (such as the Venice Commission), all serving their members , all worthy of being preserved … but outside of the clutch of dictators. (The same is less obvious in the case of PACE, which appears increasingly superfluous next to the European Parliament on the one hand and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly on the other).

The thread does not stop here, unfortunately. Other proud institutions might soon face a similar challenge: one is the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Warsaw. It has so far stood up, valiantly, to pressure from the East over its professional work on election monitoring. Why would Putin or Aliyev want credible election observation any more than rulers in Tashkent or Minsk? It is fighting tough battles over its budget. It soon faces a crucial choice over its future leadership. ODIHR’s independence and professionalism must be defended at all costs. In fact, should ODIHR be at risk of losing its credibility as a result of an ongoing Russian and Azerbaijani campaign, or should it be paralysed – then the EU and democracies like Switzerland should stand ready to fund it directly.  To rescue valuable experience. To preserve it as the preeminent  European election monitoring organisation, open to other European democracies.

It now seems only a matter of months before post-Maidan Europe will see a broader debate on the institutional architecture needed to preserve core values and safeguard the lessons from the 1930s and 40s.  And we had better prepare for it. For it now seems increasingly likely that Russian troops in Crimea and Ukraine might have a similar effect on European institutions as Mussolini’s troops had when they embarked on their aggression in East Africa many decades ago.

Council of Europe. Photo: Alban Bodineau / Council of EuropeCouncil of Europe

 

ESI background analysis: how the Council of Europe is losing credibility

5 November 2013


“There was no rain”, they said.

“There was no rain”, they said.

 

The Parable of the weathermen in Baku

Inspired by true events in October 2013

Imagine a situation where it is of great importance for you to understand what the weather was like yesterday in another part of the world. You find 50 people whom you can ask, because they were there. Forty-nine people assure you that the weather was sunny with clear, blue skies. One person insists that it poured with rain all day.

You wonder: perhaps the forty-nine sun-people and the one rain-person do not have the same understanding of what “rain” is? The forty-nine sun-people come from across the world; some held important positions in the past and you are inclined to trust them. However, the one rain-person is the only trained meteorologist. He also gives you a detailed report, with data on precipitation levels every hour of the day, obtained through measuring instruments put in place weeks ago.

Then you learn that some of the forty-nine people had only left the house for a few hours around noon that day. You overhear their comments that they “do not need to be outside to learn about the weather,” and certainly do not need to listen to “mere meteorologists”, because they themselves have the ability to “sniff the rain” and there was none. When pushed, some insist that what they meant by “sunny” was that “there was a little bit less rain yesterday than last week” (a fact disputed by the meteorologist’s data).

You also learn that some of them left their houses, saw dark clouds, got wet, returned home soaked … and now assert, with a stony face: “There was no rain”. You discover that some have a personal stake in telling you that the sun was shining; members of their family hold shares in the solar panel business, or they have bet money on the sun shining the entirety of that day.

In the end you conclude that whatever the motives for each of them are, not one of them did what the meteorologist had done … go out, look around systematically, measure the precipitation in various places, and then distinguish between phases of drizzle, thunderstorms and steady rain. So what if all forty-nine are wrong?

You see one way forward: a credible investigation of the methodologies that led all fifty observers to arrive at their conclusions. Then you realise that this might lead to a striking conclusion: perhaps in the future you should not ask any of these forty-nine people about the weather at all?

Perhaps a serious, methodological meteorologist is all that you need?

 

 

The weathermen in Baku: http://www.today.az/news/politics/127135.html

“It was raining”. Swiss member of PACE Andreas Gross on Facing the Crisis of Democracy – the failures of democracy need precise and critical, not diplomatic comments.

Executive summary of next ESI Report on the future of

election monitoring – online now

 

According to the Central Election Commission of Azerbaijan, there were nearly 1,300 international observers from 50 different organisations in Azerbaijan for the October 2013 presidential elections. Forty-nine monitoring groups praised the elections as free and fair, meeting European standards. One group of international election monitors refused to go along with the praise: the election monitoring mission of ODIHR, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.

Azerbaijanis were told by the leaders of the delegations of two European parliamentary institutions – the European Parliament (EP) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) – that they had just held “free, fair and transparent” elections. Pino Arlacchi, the head of the European Parliament’s monitoring team questioned ODIHR’s legitimacy (“not elected by anybody”), objectivity (“easy to manipulate”) and competence (“so-called experts”).

However, carrying out serious election monitoring is a resource-intensive endeavor. Only ODIHR employed a core team of experts and long-term observers, who arrived in the country many weeks before the day of elections. In addition ODIHR mobilised a large number of short-term observers for the elections themselves. ODIHR monitors observed voting in 1,151 of the 5,273 polling stations across the country. The evidence of systemic fraud was overwhelming. While voting was problematic, the counting of ballots was catastrophic, with 58 per cent of observed polling stations assessed as bad or very bad. It may have been the worst vote count ever observed by an ODIHR election observation mission anywhere.

The events in October 2013 in Baku reveal a broken system for international election observation. International monitors should provide objective assessments, based on documented observations, of whether national elections meet European and international democratic standards. This should help to prevent or resolve national disputes about election results, while guiding the international community in their future dealings with the government. Doing this requires a clear and transparent methodology.

As a rule, short-term observers arrive in a country two days before the elections. They are briefed on the election campaign. They typically spend one day meeting with representatives of the government, the opposition, mass media and NGOs. Given the limited size of their delegations, they can only visit a few polling stations on the day of elections. Few watch the crucial vote counting. Then they leave the day after the elections.

The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly argues that parliamentarians can assess whether an election meets international standards without engaging in long-term monitoring and without following any methodology, just because they have been elected themselves. This argument is absurd, but it keeps being presented as a serious claim. It is an argument that can no longer be left unchallenged by other parliamentarians concerned about the reputation of their institutions, or by international media reporting on such assessments.

This report argues that the future of election monitoring on the European continent depends on how decision makers – in the European Parliament, in the Council of Europe, in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and in European governments – react now. It is vital to revisit the facts and analyses behind the different assessments, and to retrace how different groups of observers could arrive at radically diverging conclusions. The relationship between long- and short-term election observers needs to be rethought.

Aliyev’s victory and its scandalous endorsement by most international monitors offer an opportunity to fix a broken system. Doing so would benefit not just Azerbaijanis, but all those who believe that democratic elections are celebrations of basic human rights, in Europe and around the world.

 

The full report is available here: Disgraced – Azerbaijan and the end of election monitoring as we know it

Filed under: Azerbaijan — Gerald @ 12:56 pm
9 June 2013
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What would it take for the vision of a Europe without political prisoners to become a reality in the 21st century?
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The Congress of Europe, held in The Hague and presided over by Winston Churchill, proclaimed in 1948 the need for “a Charter of Human Rights guaranteeing liberty of thought, assembly, and expression as well as the right to form a political opposition”:

The Movement for European Unity must be a positive force, deriving its strength from our sense of common spiritual values. It is a dynamic expression of democratic faith based upon moral conceptions and inspired by a sense of mission. In the centre of our movement stands the idea of a Charter of Human Rights, guarded by freedom and sustained by law … To rebuild Europe from its ruins and make its light shine forth again upon the world, we must first of all conquer ourselves.”

The Statutes of the Council of Europe, signed at St. James Palace in London in May 1949, committed all members of this new organization to respect “the spiritual and moral values which are the common heritage of their people and the true source of individual freedom, political liberty and the rule of law.”
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The European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, ready for signature in Rome in 1950, then spelled out these fundamental civic and political rights, which “the governments of European countries which are like-minded” committed to respect.
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Repression of liberty of thought and of political opposition in Europe did not end with the creation of the Council of Europe and the adoption of the Convention, however. Hearing about two Portuguese students in Lisbon, sentenced to seven years imprisonment for raising their glasses in a toast to freedom motivated the British human rights lawyer Peter Benenson to write an article in the Observer about “forgotten prisoners” in 1961. He started:
“Open your newspaper any day of the week and you will find areport from somewhere in the world of someone being imprisoned, tortured or executed because his opinions or religion are unacceptable to his government. There are several million such people in prison—by no means all of them behind the Iron and Bamboo Curtains—and their numbers are growing. The newspaper reader feels a sickening sense of impotence. Yet if these feelings of disgust all oer the world could be united into common action, something effective could be done.”
At the time five of Benenson’s eight “forgotten prisoners” were Europeans: a Romanian philosopher, a Spanish lawyer, a Greek trade unionist, a Hungarian Cardinal and the archbishop of Prague. Benenson of course went on to set up an innovative and new organisation in the wake of his successful camapaign: Amnesty International.
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However, neither Portugal nor Spain, neither Romania nor Hungary nor Czechoslovakia were then members of the Council of Europe (Greece would withdraw from it in 1969 following its military coup). None of them had accepted and ratified the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights. More than half a century has since passed. The Council of Europe has expanded dramatically so that today 47 countries with a total population of 800 million people have pledged to respect the fundamental rights of the European Convention. But today there is again a challenge to its core values, and this time it is one that has emerged within the very institutions that were meant to protect them.
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In October 2012 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted a definition of “political prisoner”.  This definition was first developed by eminent European human rights lawyers working for the secretary general of the Council of Europe as independent experts. The adoption of this definition, following a heated and controversial debate, came at a moment of growing concern that in a number of Council of Europe member states we see a new wave of trials for political motives.  In some countries, one sees the re-emergence of the phenomenon familiar from an earlier period of European history: dissidents, sent to jail for speaking out loud.
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The immediate question that emerged now was obvious: how would such a definition become operational? The first attempt to apply it – in the case of Azerbaijan in January 2013 – ended in defeat in the Parliamentary Assembly (see more here: http://www.esiweb.org/index.phplang=en&id=156&document_ID=136)
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There are many wider policy questions raised by all this –which ESI together with the Jarl Hjalmarson Foundation explores this week at a seminar in Stockholm: What should and could be done by the institutions of the Council of Europe to operationalize the definition of political prisoner that has just been adopted? Is the current system of monitors capable of confronting systemic violations? Are other member states, who are committed to defend the European Convention of Human Rights, able to define red lines that must not be crossed by Council of Europe members with impunity? How can European civil society do even more to use existing institutions and commitments to resist a rising authoritarian temptation?
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The October 2012 PACE resolution sets concrete criteria for what defines a “political prisoner.”. According to Resolution 1900, adopted in a 100-64 vote, a person shall be regarded as a political prisoner if he or she has been deprived of personal liberty in violation of guarantees set forth by the European Convention on Human Rights and its Protocols, including freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; freedom of expression and information; and freedom of assembly and association. Additional criteria include detention imposed for purely political reasons without connection to any offense; the length or conditions of detention being clearly out of proportion to the offense; a clearly discriminatory manner of the detention; and unfair, politically motivated proceedings leading to the imprisonment.
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But what can institutions like the Council of Europe do, going forward, to better defend the ideal of a Europe in which the values of the ECHR are fully respected and in which there would not be any political prisoners in the sense of the definition adopted by PACE in October 2012 (see below). Of course there is always the European Court of Human Rights for individual cases, but what if problems of political prisoners become systemic? It is important to put this debate in the current European context of challenges to the convention, including politically motivated arrests.
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Situations are obviously different even among countries in which problems exist. Azerbaijan and Russia, along with several other post-Soviet states, are today members of the Council of Europe. Yet in recent years governments in these countries have become increasingly aggressive in challenging core values of the Convention – through legislation and through systematic arrests and intimidation of critics and possible political opposition. They have thus tested the instruments and institutions of today’s human rights regime in Europe and have found them to be weaker and easier to manipulate than anybody would have expected in the 1990s. Four decades after the rest of Europe learned about “dissidents” in former communist countries a new generation of dissidents is emerging in the European East … yet this time in countries which insist to be considered “like-minded members” of the club of European democracies.
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Furthermore two other members of the Council of Europe, Turkey and Georgia, have also come into focus in this context, though
evidently the situation in both of these two countries are very different from that in Moscow and Baku, as well as very different from each other. In Turkey we have conceptually at least three different kinds of issues. There is a pattern – for decades – of a judiciary using repressive laws to attack free speech in the name of public morality; there are a range of cases on the basis of anti-terror legislation; and there are the recent high-profile cases against senior military officers and the “deep state”. There is noticeably a lot more freedom of speech than one decade ago, with competitive elections; yet there are also de facto more journalists in jail in Turkey than in any other countries in the world. The trials against many senior military members have been a key tool in a struggle by a civilian government to break the hold of power of the military; and yet there are many signs that they are also political trials, not too concerned about evidence and fairness. How promising then are current efforts to promote reforms of the legislation and the judiciary in Turkey to address such problems? Is the definition of political prisoners, is the Council of Europe a useful reference point in a Turkish context?
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In contrast to its Caucasian neighbours, Georgia has seen a democratic election lead to a real change in power in October 2012; and there are strong and protective laws on freedom of speech. The Council of Europe definition on political prisoners has recently also been applied to set
people free from jail.  At the same time there are growing concerns about prosecutions of former UNM members. A lingering question is whether these cases will turn into witch-hunts, whether the judiciary will be able to preserve credibility and fairness, and how to ensure that the behaviour of the executive and prosecutors remains within limits of rule of law.
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The aim of the Conference is to have an open discussion on the issues of political prisoners and political persecution, rule of law and the role of the judiciary overall in the context of the cooperation within the Council of Europe, in particular in the member states mentioned. The discussions will also focus on how the Council and its member states should act in a consistent fashion in addressing these issues.  And what options there are for different instruments available to in the Council of Europe framework to have more impact on the human rights situation in member states: the parliamentary assembly (PACE) and its monitors, the Commissioner for Human Rights, the Committee of Ministers and the office of the secretary general.
Some recommended reading:
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Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, The Definition of Political Prisoner, 2012
Rapporteur of the committee of Legal Affairs of PACE, The follow up to the issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan
http://www.assembly.coe.int/ASP/Doc/XrefViewPDF.asp?FileID=19217&Language=EN
European Stability Initiative, Showdown in Strasbourg: The political prisoner debate in October 2012
European Stabiliy Initiative, Azerbaijan debacle: The PACE debate on 23 January 2013
Human Rights Watch, Laws of AttritionCrackdown on Russia’s Civil Society after Putin’s Return to the Presidency, 2013                                http://www.hrw.org/reports/2013/04/24/laws-attrition
Andrew Drzemczewksi, The Prevention of Human Rights Violations: Monitoring Mechanisms of the Council of Europe, 1999
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PS: The Council of Europe definition of political prisoner states:
The Assembly declares that a person deprived of his or her personal liberty is to be regarded as a “political prisoner” :
a. if the detention has been imposed in violation of one of the fundamental guarantees  set out in the European Convention on Human Rights and its Protocols (ECHR), in particular freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of expression and  information, freedom of assembly and association;
b. if the detention has been imposed for purely political reasons without connection to  any offence;Those deprived of their personal liberty for terrorist crimes shall not be considered political prisoners for having been prosecuted and sentenced for such crimes according to national legislation and the European Convention on Human Rights.
c. if, for political motives, the length of the detention or its conditions are clearly out of  proportion to the offence the person has been found guilty of or is suspected of;
d. if, for political motives, he or she is detained in a discriminatory manner as compared  to other persons; or,
e. if the detention is the result of proceedings which were clearly unfair and this appears  to be connected with political motives of the authorities.
Filed under: Azerbaijan,Human rights,Russia,Think Tanks,Turkey — Gerald @ 11:46 pm
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