Hunger strike, European values and an Open Letter

23 April 2014

We are failing

Dear friends of ESI,

The core values of post-Cold War Europe are once again at stake in Ukraine and in Europe's East.

This is a moment when institutions devoted to the protection of these core values are more needed than ever. Yet there is a real danger that these institutions are becoming the first casualty of a deliberate assault on European democratic values.

Europe’s Abyssinian moment

ESI has published many reports in recent years on the moral and political crisis in the Council of Europe. We have written extensively on developments in Azerbaijan, one of Europe's last autocratic regimes. And yet, it is obvious that our efforts – and those of many other institutions, Azerbaijani human rights defenders, NGOs and international organisations – are yet to make any real impact.

The truth is: Ilham Aliyev is winning. His concerted campaign to undermine European democratic standards and the institutions that uphold them is working. The victims are democrats in Azerbaijan, and all those who believe in European human rights.

It is appalling that on the eve of Azerbaijan assuming the chairmanship of the Council of Europe this May, young Azerbaijani democrats have found it necessary to begin a hunger strike, as a desperate effort to alert the outside world to their plight.

This is the moment of reckoning. The combined crises of Russia's aggression in Ukraine and the Azerbaijani chairmanship could well turn out to be for the Council of Europe what the Abyssinian crisis of 1936 was for the League of Nations:

"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."


A PACE vote with consequences

N!DA activists on hunger strike since 17 April 2014: Bakhtiyar Guliyev, Rashad Hasanov, Rashadat Akhundov, Shahin Novruzlu, Mammad Azizov, Ilkin Rustamzada, Uzeyir Mammadli, Zaur Gurbanlı

N!DA activists on hunger strike since 17 April 2014: Bakhtiyar Guliyev, Rashad Hasanov, Rashadat Akhundov, Shahin Novruzlu, Mammad Azizov, Ilkin Rustamzada, Uzeyir Mammadli, Zaur Gurbanlı

Recent developments in Azerbaijan have also prompted us to write an open letter to European policy makers:

Open Letter to Theodora BAKOYANNIS (former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Greece), Mevlüt ÇAVUSOGLU (Turkey's Minister of EU Affairs and Chief Negotiator), Deniz BAYKAL (former Chairman of Turkey's Republican People's Party (CHP)), Jean-Marie BOCKEL (former French Secretary of State for Justice), Mikulas DZURINDA (former Prime Minister of the Slovak Republic), Luca VOLONTÈ (former Chairperson of the EPP group in PACE) and 119 other current and former members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

Here is an excerpt:

Dear PACE members,

Last year you cast a fateful vote in the meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. In January 2013 you voted down a draft resolution by the rapporteur on political prisoners in Azerbaijan, appointed by your Assembly in 2009. His resolution was defeated by 125 to 79 votes.

This resolution warned that the issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan had not yet been resolved. It pointed out that "politicians and activists linked to the opposition, as well as journalists, bloggers, and peaceful protesters" continue to be imprisoned in Azerbaijan and that this is a systemic problem.

This vote in PACE sent a very unfortunate signal to the authorities in Azerbaijan.

On 26 December 2012, in anticipation of the PACE vote, the president of Azerbaijan amnestied some political prisoners. With the resolution rejected, and no new rapporteur appointed, a wave of new arrests started.

Not all votes in PACE have immediate consequences. This one did. It even led to the arrest of the very people the Council of Europe had relied on and worked with in Azerbaijan.

You have probably heard about the case of Ilgar Mammadov, an opposition party leader and director of the Council of Europe's Political Studies Programme in Baku; you might know about Anar Mammadli, chairman of a leading election observation group, who had advised the PACE rapporteur on political prisoners.

They both put their faith in the Council of Europe. They were both arrested in 2013. Mammadov was sentenced to seven years in prison in March this year. Mammadli's trial began on 21 April 2014. It was as if the authorities in Baku decided to put their finger into the eye of PACE.

The police also arrested dozens of young people between January and May 2013. They had protested against non-combat soldier deaths in the armed forces. Some of them were charged with illegal arms possession and plotting mass disorder. Seven of them are members of NIDA, a pro-democracy youth organisation. One is a member of the Free Youth Movement. They are facing prison terms between 6.5 and 8.5 years.

Now eight young imprisoned activists, aged 18 to 30, have started a hunger strike. They risk their health, perhaps their lives. This could have been avoided. It can still be avoided.

We hope that you realise by now that your vote in January 2013 was a mistake. That it was a mistake to trust this repressive regime. And that the human costs of this mistake are high and the risks are growing.

All eight youth activists, as well as Mammadli and Mammadov, have been recognized as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International.

We call on you, in light of the dramatic deterioration of the situation in Azerbaijan and the hunger strike of these young people, to make an effort to correct the consequences of this decision now.

Specifically, we hope you consider doing the following:

  • 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.

If you agree with us, please share. If you are a journalist, please take the occasion of the Azerbaijani chairmanship – and the forthcoming election of a new secretary general of the Council of Europe – to investigate and write about these outrages. And if you are a policy maker, please act.

To learn more about the fateful vote in PACE in January 2013 on political prisoners please go here: Azerbaijan debacle: The PACE debate on 23 January 2013 (February 2013)

Ilgar Mammadov – Anar Mammadli

The Council of Europe worked with them. No longer: Ilgar Mammadov and Anar Mammadli


Background on Azerbaijan, the incoming chair of the Council of Europe

The increasing repression in Azerbaijan since January 2013 has been well documented. A very good and comprehensive account can be found in Human Rights Watch's 100-page report Tightening the Screws: Azerbaijan's Crackdown on Civil Society and Dissent, published in September 2013. There are also two recent briefings by Human Rights Watch: Azerbaijan's Too Predictable Crackdown (March 2014) and Muzzling the Messengers in Azerbaijan (April 2014).

Amnesty International has also followed the crackdown in Azerbaijan. On 8 August 2013 it issued a statement saying that Azerbaijan was about to begin the election campaign with "at least 14 prisoners of conscience." Amnesty's list included nine youth activists, two opposition leaders, and three human rights defenders. By November 2013, Amnesty was already speaking of "at least" 18 prisoners of conscience in Azerbaijan.

Baku's Human Rights Club, a leading NGO, used the definition of political prisoners adopted by PACE in October 2012 (Resolution 1900). In October 2013, the group published a list of 142 political prisoners. In addition to journalists, youth activists and opposition leaders, there were also 75 Muslim believers, as well as "old cases" from the 1990s.

Today, 23 April, Nils Muiznieks, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights also issued a warning:

"Freedom of expression, assembly and association are regrettably deteriorating in Azerbaijan. I once again call on the authorities to pay urgent attention to these issues so as to comply with Azerbaijan's human rights obligations and commitments as a member state of the Council of Europe. Unjustified and selective criminal prosecution of people expressing dissenting views, including journalists, bloggers and activists, continues unabated. This is unacceptable. All those who are detained because of the views they expressed must be released."

Many best regards,

Gerald Knaus