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Azerbaijan Lawyers up in Arms

Claims that the new Bar Council favours a chosen few.
By Samira Ahmedbeyli

Dozens of well-known Azerbaijani barristers have lost the right to practise their profession after the inaugural conference of the country’s Bar Council last month in Baku stripped them of the right to appear in court, leaving that privilege to just 36 licensed lawyers.


The move has stirred up a row about Azerbaijan’s legal system, which already suffers from low levels of public confidence.


Even under current circumstances, independent lawyer Fuad Agayev told IWPR, “a barrister’s presence in court is often only a formality. In most cases, the courts not only fail to accept their objections, they do not even examine them.”


Azerbaijan was obliged to set up a new Bar Council after it came under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights on April 15, 2002. One widely welcomed initiative last year was professional certification for the courts, and further reforms were hoped to come from the inaugural Bar Council conference.


According to Azerbaijani law, only members of the Bar are able to represent clients’ interests in court. All other lawyers - of whom there are round 400 - must, regardless of experience and competence, limit themselves to consultations.


The legal profession in Azerbaijan is neither highly paid nor prestigious. Farkhad Najafov, who was elected deputy chair of the Bar Council at the conference, told us that one hour of a state barrister’s time is valued at 2,250 manats (46 US cents), and the average fee of a barrister per case is 300-600,000 manats (61-122 dollars).


The new Bar Council was formed on November 3. The Council of Europe, CoE, had recommended that along with members of the old Bar, more than 200 licensed lawyers also be admitted to the new association, but this advice was not heeded at the conference.


“There were around 260 licensed lawyers, but for some reason, those who received their license before 2001 were not permitted to take part in the conference,” Adil Ismailov, a former candidate for the post of Bar Council chair and owner of a large law firm, Adisad, told IWPR. “This left 62 people on the list, which for various reasons was then further reduced to 36 people – so around 220 licensed lawyers have lost the right to practise as barristers.”


Convinced that the elections for the post of chairperson were about to be fixed, Ismailov refused to allow his nomination to go through. Yet his name remained on the ballot papers – a tactic, he believes, to create the impression that there was a choice of candidate.


As a result of the elections, Azer Tagiev, chairman of the Bar Council for the past ten years, held on to his position.


Critics of the new leadership complained that they had not been allowed to voice their opinions because there were no microphones in the conference hall and said they were intimidated by the presence of large numbers of policemen there.


Isakhan Ashurov, a well-known lawyer, is one of those who ended up on the list of 62, but did not reach the final 36. He believes that the selection process was used to cull independent-minded barristers.


Several years ago, Ashurov was the head of the Gazakh district police. In the early years of former president Heidar Aliev’s government, he was censured for his political views and lost his job. Consequently, he has also lost any possibility of practising as a barrister. Ashurov is now preparing to submit a complaint to the Constitutional Court.


“You could say that after this conference, the barrister profession is finished in Azerbaijan,” said Saida Gojamanli, head of the Office of Democracy and Human Rights organisation. “If a celebrated lawyer, someone with authority in society who played an active part in liberating political prisoners, is unable to fight against injustice and illegality and as a result is simply forced to withdraw his nomination; if barristers who have been involved in some of the most high-profile court cases are not able to take part in the establishment of the Bar Council; and if the authorities’ man, Azer Tagiev, remains in his post, then this means that we will not have an independent Bar Council. What has been established will be nothing but an office of the state.”


Tagiev defended himself against these accusations. He told IWPR that the recently adopted law on barristers and their activities was approved by CoE experts and that the new Bar Council was established in accordance with this law.


Tagiev added that because representatives of the OSCE in Baku and the United States Lawyers’ Union attended the conference, no sort of illegality could have taken place. “The conference was held under democratic conditions,” he said. “We have not received any complaints following the establishment of the new Bar Council, including from international organisations.”


Now everyone is waiting for the verdict of the Baku office of the CoE.


The Council has already come in for criticism for its role in drafting the law on barristers, with Ismailov lambasting its approval of what is in his view a flawed piece of legislation. “How could experts from the Council of Europe have approved a bill that was completely wanting?” he asked.


Ayten Shirinova, head of the CoE in Baku, told IWPR that the licensed barristers who were refused admittance ed at the conference complained to her office on November 16.


“We did not take part in the inaugural conference and so are unable to express any sort of opinion about how the session was organised and how the voting was conducted,” Shirinova told IWPR.


However, the head of the OSCE’s Baku office, ambassador Maurizio Pavesi, told Turan news agency that the elections for the leading posts of the Bar Council were badly organised. “We urge the Bar Council and the government of Azerbaijan to arrange for transparent, fair and non-bureaucratic entry to the Bar,” Pavezi said.


As well as preparing to fight the changes in the courts, dissatisfied barristers are also thinking of bypassing the new structure altogether. Barrister Eldar Gurbanov says that he may set up an alternative Bar Council with other colleagues.


“Unfortunately the law does not permit the registration of an alternative organisation under the same name,” Gurbanov said. “But the recently adopted law on barristers and their activities does allow them to set up various associations. We hope that international organisations will recognise us.”


Samira Ahmedbeyly is a freelance journalist in Baku.

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