If you come to our website often you will have noticed that ESI writes a lot about the Council of Europe. You might wonder why. Are there no other, more important European issues? And why is our stance so critical?
One reason that we keep returning to issue relating to the Council of Europe is that almost nobody else does, outside of a small group of human rights activists mainly concerned about the crackdown on civil society in Azerbaijan.
For large European think tanks and for most European media, the crisis in the Council of Europe still does not exist. Or does not really matter. Why care about debates in PACE, or about what the secretariat in Strasburg does or does not do, when there is a war in Ukraine, crises in the Middle East and challenges to democracy in old and new EU members?
We at ESI disagree. We believe that when the institution that gave us today’s European flag, and that remains the guardian of the moral constitution of democratic Europe – the European Convention on Human Rights – is fatally undermined, this points to a very serious crisis for all of Europe. It is a wound that must not be allowed to fester. Today the Council of Europe resembles Ouroboros, the snake of Greek mythology that devours itself … in this case, by destroying the moral basis on which it was founded.
Look at the European order today, and Europe’s big three organisations: the OSCE, the EU and the Council of Europe.
The OSCE has a justification as a forum for debate even with autocracies. This was its original conception in Helsinki in 1975. This is why Belarus (and Uzbekistan and the Vatican) can be members today.
The EU has to defend its own standards internally (and do a much better job at this) and externally, in particular when it comes to its ongoing enlargement talks.
For the Council of Europe, however – the first institution to enlarge to almost all of Europe in the 1990s – the current crisis of values, norms and credibility is existential. It has to be a club of European democracies, or it does not have any reason to exist.
This is why Belarus is not a member today. This is why Russia and Azerbaijan currently have no place as members, unless things change in both countries. There really is no use for an institution focusing on human rights and democracy when these standards are defined by autocracies and thus undermined for everyone else.
ESI strongly believes that the Council of Europe should matter. It should be talked about more. It should be given the resources to fulfil its crucial role better. But the key recource missing today is not money, but attention. Think tanks and media should follow what happens in Strasburg. It is a shame that the foreign ministers of influential countries attend its meetings so rarely (to begin with Germany and France) and that parliaments throughout Europe pay so little attention.
We believe that it is important to preserve the idea that one day the European Convention on Human Rights will be the normative basis for all of Europe (including Russia and the South Caucasus), not just the current European Union. Just as it was crucial to preserve this aspiration in the decades prior to 1989 in a divided Europe. It may look unlikely now; it definitely looked implausible then.
Europe’s moral constitution
For what is the European Convention? It is the basis of civilised life, in a continent known as much for autocracy and human rights violations as it is known for the enlightenment and rights.
It is comprised of the following basic commitments, that are once again under pressure across the continent:
Article 1 Respecting the rights in this convention
Article 2 The right to life – a duty to refrain from unlawful killing and to investigate suspicious deaths
Article 3 Prohibits torture, and “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. There are no exceptions on this right.
Article 4 Prohibits slavery, servitude and forced labour
Article 5 Provides the right to liberty, subject only to lawful arrest
Article 6 Provides a detailed right to a fair trial
Article 7 Prohibits retroactive criminalisation
Article 8 Provides a right to respect for one’s “private and family life, home and correspondence”, subject to certain restrictions “necessary in a democratic society”.
Article 9 Provides a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
Article 10 Provides the right to freedom of expression, subject to certain restrictions “necessary in a democratic society”.
Article 11 Protects the right to freedom of assembly and association.
It is irresponsible to close our eyes to the fact that today the European Convention is being mocked by certain member states of the Council of Europe, not occasionally but systematically. Today these core articles are not only disregarded but also openly challenged.
If Azerbaijan or Russia were expelled from the Council of Europe today (or would preemtively leave voluntarily) then this does not mean that a democratic Azerbaijan or Russia might not one day join again. In fact, that would be the goal. It would give human rights defenders in these countries a clear objective. And they should be supported in this in all possible ways. Greece was not in the Council of Europe under military rule in 1968 … and later rejoined it as a democracy.
Today we have the worst of all worlds. We see the standards of the European Convention on Human Rights mocked, the institution and its bodies paralysed. We see these institutions turned against the very people in those countries who defend them there … and who risk jail and worse for doing so.
We see democrats indifferent to the institution, while autocrats invest resources to capture and manipulate this critical intervention. Things are upside down. It is time to put them back in order.
We have written before about parallels between the fate of the League of Nations and what is currently happening in Strasburg (See : Europe’s Abyssinian Moment).
Here is another thought-provoking parallel from Europe’s early 20th century history. At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference East European nations signed treaties guaranteeing rights to minorities. These treaties called for religious freedom and civic equality. Minorities were granted the right of petition to the League. Governments in Eastern Europe complained about these “unjust requirements that the great powers did not impose on themselves”. These countries had a point. However, the proper response to this complaint was not to water down these rights, but to apply them equally to everyone.
Instead, the solution chosen was the worst of all. These rights were never applied and these treaties were never taken seriously. Despite there being a special League of Nations Minorities section it proved to be a “weak reed”: of 883 petitions the League received between 1920 and 1939, only four resulted in condemnation of the accused state. When the first anti-Jewish university quota system was introduced in Hungary in 1920 protests at the League of Nations failed to secure the law’s withdrawal. (For more on this see Bernard Wasserstein’s fascinating book “On the Eve – the Jews of Europe before the Second World War.)
Perhaps then too there were serious and influential people who thought that Europe had more important problems than to defend norms and treaties concerning human rights in small East European nations.
However, this assumption was wrong then and it is wrong now. The crisis in Strasburg matters not just to a few brave human rights defenders on the European periphery. It matters to all of us.
This contradiction matters
PS: For more on the crisis of the Council of Europe, see also the latest ESI newsletter:
Heading to Strasbourg this week – Ambassador of Azerbaijan to the EU
RIDDLE OF THE WEEK
Dear friends, here is a riddle to begin your week:
Why is Fuad Isgandarov, Azerbaijani ambassador and head of its mission to the EU, heading for Strassburg this week for the next session of the European Parliament? Who will he meet and what will he try to achieve in the interest of his country?
Tomorrrow the Conference of Presidents of the European Parliament will chose this year’s Sakharov Prize winner. One of the leading contenders is one of the most inspiring human rights activists in the world today: Azerbaijani Leyla Yunus.
There is support for Leyla Yunus across the different party groups. And there is growing concern in Baku. More and more of the great people held in its prisons today are being recognised for their courage and awarded international human rights prizes. Millions spent on lobbying firms, on invitations, on hosting events, on paying “experts” to say how oil matters more than a handful of prisoners … all undermined by a few human rights prizes?
The prospect of an Azerbaijani woman being named together with Nelson Mandela, Wei Jingsheng, Aung San Suu, Memorial, Reporters without borders or Malala Yousafzai should delight Azerbaijani patriots. Already being nominated as one of three finalists in 2014 is a huge distinction for Leyla Yunus.
We hope the Ambassador, heading to Strassburg, will spare a moment to read this latest letter by Leyla Yunus – in jail, separated from her husband, who is also held in isolation, as are so many of her fellow human rights defenders:
“They didn’t just arrest us as a married couple. By doing so they restored a “glorious” Stalin tradition. They indicted us to such a bouquet of fantastic accusations (even Yezhov and Vishinki would lag behind), including a life sentence… While in detention, I clearly understood their goal is not just the destruction, but brutal torture, insults, and physical torment, when death becomes the desired escape from the terrible suffering. This is our reality, and I clearly realize it. In other words, our work received the highest mark on the highest scale… Arif I feel so lonely without you! For 36 years we were shoulder to shoulder, and were hoping to celebrate our 40th anniversary but they are so afraid of us… Good Lord, how could a small, weak, sick woman scare the ruling government? With what?! I know you would say, “traveler will tell the Lacedaemon, that here we lie, true to the Law”. But I still think Leonidas had it easier, simpler… One of 300s.”
And perhaps he will reflect, as he meets these MEPs, about what really serves his country’s interest.
“… they know from their own experience in 1968, and from the Polish experience in 1980-1981, how suddenly a society that seems atomized, apathetic and broken can be transformed into an articulate, united civil society. How private opinion can become public opinion. How a nation can stand on its feet again. And for this they are working and waiting, under the ice.”
Timothy Garton Ash about Charter 77 in communist Czechoslovakia, February 1984
“How come our nation has been able to transcend the dilemma so typical of defeated societies, the hopeless choice between servility and despair?”
Adam Michnik, Letter from the Gdansk Prison, July 1985
We then studied the puzzle of increasing repression / decreasing criticism on the part of the Council of Europe, and the strange pattern of international election monitoring in Azerbaijan:
There have also been a number of newsletters – many making the case for greater support to Azerbaijani human rights defenders, arguing that their fate matters to everyone concerned about the future of human rights in Europe:
Thomas de Waal is one of the leading experts in the world today on the Caucasus, author of “Black Garden, Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War” and “The Caucasus: An Introduction” and a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC. He also knows all the key actors in the region for decades, including Leyla Yunus and her husband Arif, two of the most impressive intellectuals and human rights defenders in Europe today. The fact that both are in jail in the Azerbaijan of Ilham Aliyev tells you almost everything you need to know about this regime.
The Responsibility of a Politician: Leyla Yunus and the Heirs of Andrei Sakharov
Thomas de Waal
October 11, 2014
In 1989 during some of the most tumultuous days of perestroika, Andrei Sakharov stood up in the Soviet Union’s first popularly elected parliament, the Congress of People’s Deputies, and called for the end of the monopoly on power of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Sakharov was an influential voice, but also a lonely one, speaking amidst a cacophony of old Communist Party nomenklatura officials on the one hand and aspiring nationalists on the other.
At the same time, in the Soviet Union’s non-Russian republics, a few brave activists were inspired by the courage of Sakharov and others. They stepped forward and spoke out about the rights of their republics to win independence and achieve democracy.
These activists were strongest in the three Baltic republics and the three republics of the South Caucasus: Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. In Azerbaijan, the struggle was especially difficult. The Communist Party apparatus clung tenaciously to power. The Popular Front of Azerbaijan had a radical nationalist wing that was ready to use violence. All the while the mutually suicidal conflict with Armenia over the disputed region of Nagorny Karabakh was heating up.
A small band of academics and intellectuals in the city of Baku were the first to talk about democracy, the first to warn about the dangers of “provocations” and the first to speak up about the defence of the Armenian minority still living in Azerbaijan. They combined courage with intellectual insight about where their republic was heading.
Leyla Yunus, a young historian, was one of that band, together with her husband, Arif, also a historian and scholar. Yunus was one of the half-dozen founders of Azerbaijan’s Popular Front, an organization that modeled itself on the Popular Fronts of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, even as they knew how much harder the struggle was in their country.
As 1989 unwound, Leyla and her colleagues warned that two extremes–the dinosaurs of the Communist nomenklatura and the nationalist radicals–were feeding off one another in a dangerous game of bluff and provocation.
The sad culmination of these mutual provocations came in January 1990–Baku’s terrible “Black January” and the bloodiest episodes of Mikhail Gorbachev’s entire rule as Soviet leader. First the city’s remaining Armenians were subjected to pogroms and expulsion. Then Soviet tanks rolled in to the city, fired on apartment buildings and crushed demonstrators to death.
At the end of Black January, around 90 Armenians were dead and thousands had fled, 130 Azerbaijanis had been killed. Leyla Yunus spoke up again, this time in print. In an essay entitled “The Degree of a Responsibility of a Politician,” published in the journal Istiklal in April 1990, she described the situation with devastating clarity.
In the essay, she begins by praising the bravery of those who stood in the streets to face down the tanks in Baku:
They stood with linked arms. “Freedom!” The word rang over Communist Street, which would soon lose its name, along with so much that lost its meaning that night. They did not step away from the path of the armoured personnel carriers and tanks, whose tracks were already crimson with the blood of the people they had crushed on Tbilisi Avenue, Square of the XIth Red Army and other places. But even the bloodied tanks stopped before this never-before-seen unity. “Freedom!”
Yunus calls Moscow’s military intervention “red fascism”
Forty five years ago, practically unarmed–how much the armament campaign of 1941 cost us!–our people stopped the tanks of brown Fascism. On the night of January 20, the armour of red Fascism went through the streets of Baku–the very same Fascism which had crushed and overpowered the peoples of the Union after October 1917.
Until then, Leyla Yunus tells us, Azerbaijanis had been “lucky”–to a degree.
Our people saw this regime in April 1920 and experienced its charms most acutely in the 1930s. Fortunately, we did not meet the fate of the Crimean Tatars, Balkars or Volga Germans, who were deported wholesale in cattle cars to destruction. We did not lose our homeland as the Meskhetian Turks did. We did not lose a third of our population, as the Estonians did, we felt the famine of 1933-34 less than did Belarus or Ukraine. We were lucky enough to be spared Chernobyl. But all the rest that this prison-house order gave to our peoples we experienced to the full. Collectivization, the genocidal destruction of the intelligentsia, the economic theft of our riches, the transformation into a mono-cultural colony…
Only now, it seems, had Azerbaijanis woken up to the nature of the regime they lived under, but they should have known earlier…
Which of you, who threw away their Communist Party cards today, rejected the “Ruling and Guiding” Party in 1968 when our sons were sent to crush the Prague Spring? Which of you spoke out, when our boys were dispatched to Afghanistan?
Did it really have to take the rivers of blood spilled in beautiful Baku for every decent person to decide that it was morally unacceptable for him to stay in the ranks of a criminal party? There is an easy human explanation for this–it is one thing to hear and to know something, and another to see all the horror with your own eyes, to feel it on yourself. However, in my view, this epiphany which even today has come to too few people, came too late and cost us too much…
She rebukes the extreme nationalists of the Popular Front for fomenting hatred against Baku’s defenceless Armenians.
On January 13, on Freedom Square the rally was still continuing, and in the building opposite people were already assaulting Armenians. Woe, disgrace, dishonour came to our town.. The pogromshchik has no nationality. The looter and murderer does not have the right to belong to any people…
And she warns against those who want to soak Azerbaijan’s movement for independence in blood.
The responsibility of a politician is comparable to the responsibility of a doctor. In both cases lack of professionalism leads to death and injury. And if someone writes, “Sacrifice cleanses the nation! You know how much we needed this cleansing… ” it is absolutely clear to me where this patriot-politician can lead us.
Why, in the name of a falsely understood unity of the nation should we march like a herd, behind first one, then another organization, behind this “father-leader” or behind another one?
But she still hopes for the release of political prisoners and the triumph of democracy:
My greatest desire is to see the Popular Front of Azerbaijan as a single powerful organization speaking out from a position of democracy, defending with the help of lawyers today with human rights organizations everyone who has been arrested.
I dream of an overwhelming victory by the democratic forces of the Azerbaijani people headed by the Popular Front of Azerbaijan in the elections.
Our tree of freedom will not bloom soon, and we need to water it with reason and not with a pool of blood.
Leyla Yunus’ essay was so powerful, clear-sighted and morally cogent that it persuaded hundreds of young Azerbaijanis to support the country’s Social Democratic Party, which became the most progressive and democratic part of the opposition.
Leyla Yunus subsequently briefly served in the Popular Front government of 1992-3, where she was a moderating influence. In 1993 former Soviet leader Heidar Aliev returned to power as president of independent Azerbaijan. In 1996 she founded the Institute of Peace and Democracy. The list of issues they worked on was dizzying: rule of law, defence of those arrested, national minorities, land-mines. Later they founded Azerbaijan’s first women’s crisis center. In the mean time Arif Yunus was Azerbaijan’s foremost expert on a host of issues, including the plight of refugees and the rise of political Islam.
In recent years, under the presidency of Heidar Aliev’s son Ilham, Leyla and her colleagues were increasingly targeted by the authorities. They were called strident, aggressive and difficult. And they were.
In the past year, the situation in Azerbaijan has deteriorated rapidly. The old nomenklatura mindset is back in full force. The list of political prisoners Leyla Yunus compiled—now including her and Arif—has 98 names on it. Most of them are secular pro-Western activists. In April, Leyla and Arif Yunus were detained at the airport as they were about to board an international flight. They were hit with all sorts of ludicrous charges, most notably–and with the scariest echo of Soviet times– espionage on behalf of the enemy, the Armenians.
In prison, Leyla Yunus, who has diabetes and other health problems, has been subjected to verbal and physical abuse. Arif Yunus, who has a heart condition, has been kept in complete isolation in the cells of the national security committee, the heir to the KGB.
In the same week, the Russian Ministry of Justice applied to have Memorial–Russia’s strongest human-rights organization and the winner of the 2009 Sakharov Prize–shut down.
In 1989 and 1990, these people had a vision, even as they recognized with the same clarity all the dangers that lay ahead, the narrow path that needed to be trod between different forces, if the former Soviet republics were to achieve European-style democracy.
Now, unfortunately, 25 years later, in both Russia and Azerbaijan some of the worst fears are coming to pass. That increases our responsibility to support people like Leyla Yunus and Memorial, as they are punished for having that vision.
While European institutions are finally recognising the heroism of human rights defenders in Azerbaijan – thus making clear that their struggle is of global significance – every single political prisoner so far rewarded remains in jail. Our attention needs to shift to the only real prize: to get international institutions and states to act and to sanction.
It is time for a really broad-based campaign … targetted not the authorities in Baku, who are beyond shame, but human rights institutions betraying human rights defenders. Note: Azerbaijan, the current chairman of the Council of Europe, holds in its jails today the men and women winning or considered for the very highest prizes in the field of human rights in the world. And so far the Council of Europe – including its general secretary – acts as if this has nothing to do with them.
Mr. Jagland has issued a press release on the events in Ferguson, Missouri … how about issuing a press release congratulating Anar Mammadli, the winner of the Vaclav Havel Prize 2014, who used to work with the Council of Europe, and is in jail today?
Mr. Jagland has met the Azerbaijani president already three times in recent months. How about cancelling all participation of the Council of Europe secretariat in events in Baku until there is news about the situation of Ilgar Mammadov … who is in jail, but disappeared more than a week ago, has no contact with lawyers … and who also worked for and with the Council of Europe? Or until Leyla Yunus, Rasul Jafarov and so many other human rights defenders are released?
Mr Jagland: if you think doing nothing remains an option for your institutions you underestimate the strength and moral purpose of the broad-based coalition that is currently emerging across Europe.
The case of Leyla Yunus
Here is the most recent email ESI sent to all the members of the European Parliament who decided on 7 October 2014 on the final short list of three candidates for the 2014 Sakharov Human Rights Prize.
Today you will decide on the finalists for the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize 2014.
We appeal to you to give your vote to Leyla Yunus – on behalf of all other human rights defenders and dissidents in Azerbaijan. Almost 100 of them are imprisoned like Leyla (see this list), the others face a chilling wave of repression.
These Azerbaijanis stand in the tradition of those who fought for human rights during Soviet rule. Distinguished Russian activists, some of them former political prisoners, underline this in a joint letter to the European Parliament that was published last week (available in English andRussian). Three of them – Lyudmila Alekseeva, Sergei Kovalyov and Oleg Orlov – shared the EP’s Sakharov Prize in 2009.
Oleg Orlov, Lyudmila Alekseeva and Sergei Kovalyov receiving the Sakharov Prize 2009
Photo: European Parliament
Your vote for Leyla will be a vital sign to Azerbaijan’s besieged human rights community that they are not alone.
It will be a sign that the European Union, led by the Parliament, does not close its eyes to repression anywhere on our continent.
It could be crucial also for this generation of human rights defenders. The fate of Leyla, one of the most respected human rights activists in the country, is telling. Prison conditions in Azerbaijan are appalling. At age 58, Leyla suffers from diabetes and has caught a flu in her cold cell. She has been repeatedly beaten. Last Saturday, her lawyers stated that her health “has extremely deteriorated” and “that there is no guarantee that Leyla will survive until the end of this year”.
The authorities are now going after the handful of remaining lawyers who defend human rights defenders, and torture has returned to jails in Azerbaijan.
There is hardly any news of Leyla’s husband Arif Yunus, a historian and peace activist, who was arrested in early August, a few days after Leyla, and is held at a facility notorious for torture of inmates.
Leyla and her husband Arif Yunus, both imprisoned by the Azerbaijani authorities
For 10 days, there has been absolutely no news of Ilgar Mammadov. All food parcels sent to him by his family have been turned down. The director of the Council of Europe’s School of Political Studies in Baku intended to run against President Aliyev in the elections in October 2013, but was arrested beforehand and sentenced to 7 years in prison last March. The European Parliament demanded his immediate release already last year. Lately he announced that he faces serious pressure to write an open letter of apology to the government. Then he disappeared.
The “crime” of Mammadov, the Yunuses and the other Azerbaijani political prisoners is their desire for a pluralist society, for respect of human rights, for peace – for the values on which the EU has been built.
Azerbaijan is member (currently even chair) of the Council of Europe. It has accepted the Paris Charter for a new Europe. It is formally committed to all the norms on which Europe’s post-cold war order is built. To watch one regime dismantle all civil liberties with impunity and make any human rights work impossible, and to let it happen, creates a terrible precedent. It undermines the norms on which European security rests.
Today you can take a step to prevent it from happening.
With the very kindest of regards,
Chairman of European Stability Initiative (ESI)
Azerbaijani human rights activist and defender of the right to free and fair elections, Anar Mammadli, is the 2014 winner of the Vaclav Havel Prize.
This is a promising, fair, and even courageous decision by the jury members in charge of awarding this prize, for it also highlights a dramatic failure – by the very institution on whose behalf this prize is awarded, the Council of Europe (CoE).
It is imperative that the Council of Europe act now, following this strong signal. At the very least the following should happen immediately:
All activities of the Azerbaijani chairmanship of the Council of Europe should be boycotted or suspended until Anar Mammadli (winner of the 2014 the Havel Prize winner) and Ilgar Mammadov (former chair of Council of Europe School of Politics and, according to ECtHR, a political prisoner) are released. It is unacceptable that a Council of Europe chair is under serious suspicion of systematic repression.
The secretary general of the Council of Europe should appoint a panel of respected European judges to examine the list of Azerbaijani political prisoners and reports by eminent human rights organisations, and report back to the Committee of Ministers (CoM) of the Council of Europe and to PACE with their findings.
Members of the Committee of Ministers in the CoE should sternly warn Azerbaijan about its treatment of prisoners, and demand full and unconditional cooperation with international monitors, including full access for outsiders to visit prisoners, given the serious allegations of abuse.
Awarding Anar Mammadli with the Vaclav Havel prize is a strong signal and critical first step. But without further action by the Council of Europe, handing out an award is meaningless – and will definitely not save this institution’s soul. Recent months and this award have also made it obvious just how far the Committee of Ministers, PACE, and the Secretariat have diverged from their original mission to protect and ensure human rights.
The time to correct this is now.
Background on why the Havel Prize 2014 was given to the right person
In recent months, it has become obvious that the Azerbaijani government has decided to finish, once and for all, any opposition in the country.
New NGO laws make the critical work of civil society organisation impossible. Dozens of NGOs have had their bank accounts frozen, including those with grants by the European Union. Staff members of human rights organisations are in prison, in hiding, or expecting criminal charges. International organisations such as Transparency International, Open Society Foundations, NED, NDI, IREX, etc. have not been spared in this onslaught. Reports and accounts of torture in jails are multiplying. Monitoring mechanisms have long since broken down. Recently, a UN team sent to investigate cases of torture had to cut its visit short due to obstruction by the Azerbaijani authorities.
It is obvious that the Aliyev regime expects to get away with all of this, emerging unscathed. The government in Baku ignores the occasional complaints, viewing them as no more than a nuisance, (a non-binding resolution in the European Parliament here, another report or statement from an NGO there). Azerbaijan’s government rests assured that when senior officials from Western Europe and the United States come to visit, the issue of human rights remains very low on their agenda.
In this regard, the failure of the mechanisms within the Council of Europe is particularly disheartening. Ever since PACE rejected the January 2013 resolution on political prisoners in Azerbaijan (See: Azerbaijan debacle: The PACE debate on 23 January 2013), all dams have burst:
There were the arrests of NIDA activists in 2013, who were detained for protesting violence against conscripts in the military. The young activists were sentenced to jail-terms of up to 8 years – on the very day Azerbaijan assumed the chairmanship of the Council of Europe in May 2014. (See: NIDA’s “Live not by Lies” Baku Court Speech – May 2014)
There was the arrest of Ilgar Mammadov, who was head of the Council of Europe School of Politics at the time of his arrest. Mammadov was sentenced to 7 years in prison in March this year. The fact that his case has been identified as a politically motivated by the ECtHR has not made any difference.
There was the arrest and sentencing of Anar Mammadli, the former advisor of the rapporteur on political prisoners, arrested just before the UK Foreign Secretary arrived in Baku in autumn 2013.
Then this past summer came the arrests of Leyla Yunus and Rasul Jafarov – the very people who coordinated Azerbaijan’s civil society to draw up a comprehensive list of political prisoners – despite the risk and despite lack of support from the Council of Europe. Almost immediately after releasing this list, Leyla, her husband, and Rasul were all arrested. (The list is a document of shame: www.esiweb.org/thelist)
These prominent arrests are only the tip of an iceberg. The government is blackmailing activists and journalists with sex tapes, pressuring their family members (who end up losing jobs or are threatened with arrest themselves), illegally seizing files related to cases brought to the ECtHR, and intimidating and threatening the few remaining lawyers who still take on political cases. And all of this is happening while Azerbaijan holds the chairmanship of the Council of Europe.
Additionally, PACE appointed Spanish PP member Pedro Agramunt as the new rapporteur on political prisoners. Agramunt is a man who has solidified his reputation as an apologist for the government in Baku, speaking out and voting against the adoption of a standard definition of political prisoners, presented in 2012. (See: Showdown in Strasbourg: The political prisoner debate in October 2012). Agramunt also voted against a January 2013 resolution that would have addressed the issue of political prisoners in Azerbaiijan — a resolution that Anar Mammadli helped prepare. The appointment of Agramunt as rapporteur on political prisoners in Azerbaijan adds insult to injury. (See also: A Portrait of Deception. Monitoring Azerbaijan or why Pedro Agramunt should resign).
A debate on the recent wave of repression has emerged within the Committee of Ministers recently. However, there has been no serious reaction by member states in the CoM or by the secretariat. It seems that everyone is waiting for the end of the Azerbaijani chairmanship, hoping that by then the limited interest in Azerbaijan’s human rights record will dissipate completely.
Perhaps the government will even release one or two political prisoners (its carousel policy), and claim that the “mechanisms” of protection are indeed working. However, as long as the Aliyev government is allowed to continue its repression, it may eventually succeed in destroying one of the most courageous human rights movements in Europe. Furthermore, with the 2015 parliamentary elections – and another corrupt and unfair electoral process – the authoritarian consolidation will have been completed.
Will awarding Anar Mammadli the 2014 Vaclav Havel prize mark the point at which the Council of Europe becomes aware of what is actually occurring – the capture of an established European institution tasked with protecting human rights – and start changing? One can only hope so.
She – they – deserve a prize from the EU. But which prize should it be?
Celebrate the courage of Euromaidan! Honor its activists! Support democratic Ukraine! Remind Europeans everywhere just how important events in the largest country of Eastern Europe are for the future of the continent.
There are good reasons to doubt that it is. These reasons have nothing to do with what happened in Ukraine in early 2014, but rather what is not happening in the EU now. Tens of thousands of Euro and a ceremony on TV is not the prize that Ukrainians have fought for, and will do little for them in this dark hour.
What is a real prize?
Let us first ask: what do Ukrainians need from the European Union today?
With their country under attack, their territory occupied, their people displaced and their soldiers locked in battle with Russian and Russian-backed forces, Ukrainian society hopes for substantive support from the EU – material, financial and moral. This includes credible and sustained sanctions against Russia, holding them accountable for the annexation of swaths of Ukrainian territory. It includes economic aid, assistance in coping with rising numbers of internally displaced and support for the cold winter that is looming. And, perhaps most important of all, it includes the promises made in Article 49 of the Treaties of the European Union: that once Ukraine meets the specified criteria, it might also have the chance to join the European Union, without any neighbouring country holding the right to veto. Just as the Baltics and Poland have.
It was in order to keep such a perspective alive that many Ukrainians risked their lives last winter, waving the blue European flag. To sustain the momentum of the Maidan protests, the Ukrainian people voted for political parties that promised to work towards a European future. During his inauguration, Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, again referred to the goals of Euromaidan. The European People’s Party also spoke of the movement’s vision, when it met in Dublin earlier this year.
This democratic vision is what the new European Parliament should be supporting today – through policy reform and concrete action. It is a vision that needs to be sold actively, both on the international stage and to European constituencies. The goals and ideals born out of Euromaidan need to be defended in the face of both indifference and skepticism. A strong restatement of this vision from the European Parliament – and meaningful and tangible support – would remind Ukrainians of what they are fighting for.
Of course, awarding a prize is much more simple than implementing palpable change. Standing on a podium next to people who have already become global stars in their own right, is easy. Perhaps it is too easy. It appears as a gesture of solidarity, but it is one without substance. At a moment when Ukrainians feel abandoned by Europe, a prize and accolades are not likely to reassure them.
There are other, more effective steps that could be taken to support Euromaidan, instead of giving the Sakharov Prize. For instance, the European Parliament could recognize the efforts of the Ukrainian people by bestowing a real award – the lifting of visa requirements for all Ukrainians. This is something that would truly benefit the people of Ukraine, carrying a strong promise of future EU integration.
By contrast, a symbolic gesture by the new European Parliament, at a time when Ukraine is facing profound existential threats, is a substitute for real action. This is not the first time such empty gestures have been made on the part of the European Parliament, though. In 2011, the EP took the obvious step of giving the Sahkarov prize to the activists of the Arab uprisings. The prize raised the hopes of brave activists for sustained support from Europe as they, like the activists in Ukraine, faced a watershed moment in their countries. But these expectations were never fulfilled.
An Egyptian prize winner was asked in 2011: “What could the EU and EP do to support the transition to democracy in the Arab world?” She noted: “I am against any form of foreign intervention, but I think the EP should insist on the application of universal humanitarian laws.” Today, many of the Tahrir Square activists are in prison, their organisations banned. The only European country that reacted strongly to this repression was Turkey.
Another 2011 Sakharov Prize winner, from Libya, explained: “[The Sakharov Prize] will be of great help to me and the Libyan people, because this is the first time that a Libyan received such a prize. So if you help me to do my job properly, it will help the Libyan people.” Today, Libya is in chaos.
The Syrian activist, Razan Zaitouneh, was a recipient in 2011 as well. Then in hiding, Zaitouneh was a human rights lawyer who had created the blog, “”Syrian Human Rights Information Link” (SHRIL), (which has since been taken down). On her blog she publicly revealed murders and human rights abuses committed by the Syrian army and police. Zaitouneh is quoted as saying: “The most beautiful part of the Syrian revolution is the high spirits of the Syrian people, who turned the protests into carnivals of song, dancing and chants of freedom, despite the bullets, arrests and tanks.” Since then, millions of refugees have had to leave Syria – although it is not the European Union that has given them shelter. On 9 December 2013, Zaitouneh, along with three other Syrian activists were kidnapped east of Damascus, in the city of Duma.
It was an easy decision to award a prize to courageous Arab activists in 2011. It was much more difficult to find practical ways to protect them and uphold their ideals. Awarding the Sakharov Prize was a gesture that failed to meet the expectations of long-repressed populations – much like the Arab Spring itself.
Shining the spotlight of attention
Euromaidan was the central story in Europe in 2014. The people who led it – Mustafa Nayem, Ruslana Lyzhychko and others – will be featured heavily in any review of this year’s events. They are famous, and they deserve to be.
In other words, by awarding them a personal prize, the European Parliament will add little to what the media and European leaders have already said. It will not bring the change that is now needed in Ukraine – Euromaidan is past the point where paying lip service and attention to their cause will solve the problems their country is facing. It is similar to awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the first African-American president, right after he was elected. The White House suspected that the award was more about getting Obama to visit Oslo, than the achievements of a newly elected president. It certainly left the world – and human rights – unchanged. Is this really what human rights prizes are for?
Making a difference?
Alternatively, one should ask the question: what can awarding such a prize actually accomplish? Can – and should – the Sakharov Prize be used to make a real difference? Not just to the way we look at the past, but also to the future?
Today, human rights are under assault across Eastern Europe, from Russia to Azerbaijan. Ukrainian political prisoners have fortunately been released as a result of Euromaidan. But 2014 has also seen dozens of dissidents elsewhere become targets of persecution.
In Azerbaijan, there are dozens of activists in prison; not victorious, but languishing; not celebrated, but isolated and unknown to much of the world. They are there for defending the values of free speech – the core idea behind the Sakharov Prize. They are paying the price for protecting the European Convention of Human Rights, but remain largely ignored by democratic Europe.
By nominating these human rights defenders for the Sakharov Prize, the European Parliament would celebrate the same values for which Ukrainians took to the streets. But it would also do something that has been difficult to achieve thus far. Something that Azerbaijani civil society is in desperate need of.
The human rights situation in Azerbaijan is not getting the attention or media coverage that Euromaidan has. Both causes are undoubtedly worthy of recognition. However, bringing attention to the plight of Azerbaijani activists by nominating them for the Sakharov Prize will result in substantive change, more so than would nominating Euromaidan. Ukraine is instead in need of a much different reaction from the European Parliament. It would be a missed opportunity not to take advantage of the power that the Sakharov Prize can have. The EP was successful in using the award to raise awareness about a dire situation in 2006, when it drew the attention of the world to the fate of Alexander Milinkevich, leader of the opposition in Belarus.
In this way, the European Parliament would also assert the value of human rights in petro-states, such as Azerbaijan – even those that have already invested millions in buying friends throughout Europe. After assuming chairmanship of the Council of Europe in May 2014, Azerbaijan has used its influence in the Council to launch an unprecedented assault on civil society. It is an autocracy with the same values and the same approach to “freedom” as Russia under Vladimir Putin. And we have seen what can come from such leaders, should they ostensibly be allowed to run free with their repressive tactics.
So, will European parliamentarians take a path that is obvious and uncontroversial? Or will they send a signal that could make a real difference? Honouring dissidents in Azerbaijan could have real impact. It might even save lives. It would be acting with a strong voice, not reacting passively.
Let me repeat: this is not about the relative merits of the various candidates. Euromaidan deserves the highest recognition. It deserves a prize from the EU. So this is our proposal: recognise Ukraine’s struggle with actions that will truly benefit its people, with the kind of support that is appropriate for where Ukrainians are in their fight towards liberalisation: put Ukraine on the white Schengen list and grant visa-free travel. And give the Sakharov Prize to the forgotten activists of today; human rights defenders who are suffering in the shadows as you read this, in prison for speaking out on behalf of others.
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!
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:
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.”
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.
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.