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Azerbaijan: Political Prisoners Controversy

Despite a New Year’s presidential pardon, Azerbaijan’s jails hold many political prisoners, critics say.
By Zarema Velikhanova

Azerbaijan’s new president Ilham Aliev began 2004 with a New Year’s decree pardoning dozens of political prisoners, but critics say many more remain jailed and warn Baku may fail to satisfy its obligations to the Council of Europe.


A total of 160 prisoners have been amnestied - many of them believed to be prisoners of conscience.


Particularly significant was the freeing of Iskander Hamidov, a former interior minister and head of the National Democratic Party of Azerbaijan. Sentenced in 1995 to 14 years for mismanagement, abuse of power and violence against journalists, Azerbaijani and international human rights groups said his only sin had been to threaten the overwhelming power of then-president Geidar Aliev – the recently deceased father of current president Ilham.


These early releases will help Azerbaijan’s case at a Council of Europe meeting on January 26-27 when a report on political prisoners by Malcom Bruce, council officer for Azerbaijan, will be reviewed. Critics, though, describe the New Year’s move as a “fig leaf” for persistent problems. “It doesn’t cut ice,” said Eldar Zeinalov, director of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan.


While unanimous in challenging the Azerbaijani government’s insistence that there are no more prisoners of conscience, rights activists dispute just how many remain.


The Federation of Human Rights Groups says the recent decree pardoned 65 political prisoners, leaving 180 behind bars, while the Monitoring Group for Human Rights Organisations says 51 political prisoners were released, while 101 more remain in jail.


When Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe in January 2001, it pledged to release all political prisoners identified by a special panel. Since then, several pardons have since been issued, and 284 political prisoners released.


Bruce told the Ekho newspaper, “This is considerable progress, but some people we consider political prisoners have not yet been released.”


However, Baku officials describe all those remaining on the council’s list as common criminals.


With reference to the current situation in Azerbaijan, Council of Europe Secretary General Walter Schwimmer said that “even one political prisoner is one too many” and stressed that Baku is expected to be given a new and possibly final deadline to release the last such detainees by October this year.


The spotlight fell on Azerbaijan most recently during disturbances in the wake of the October 15 elections last year in which President Aliev succeeded his father amid accusations of manipulation at the polls. Police then arrested 128 opposition party members charged with disturbing public order and inciting mass unrest.


These included Arif Gajili, deputy chief of the influential Musavat opposition party; Rauf Arifoglu, editor-in-chief of the most popular daily newspaper in southern Caucasus; Sardar Jalaloglu, secretary general of the Democratic Party, and the well-known religious figure Ilgar Ibrahimoglu.


Critics claim that these detainees have been unlawfully kept in a remand prison while awaiting trial, and therefore stand a good chance of being recognised as political prisoners by the Council of Europe.


One Azerbaijani representative at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, PACE, Gulamhusseyn Alibeyli - who is also a member of the opposition Popular Front party - told IWPR, “These people were detained on political grounds, and the extension of their arrest by another three months means the authorities are not prepared to end the controversy surrounding their detention.”


However, Gultekin Hajieva, deputy head of the Azerbaijani parliamentary delegation to PACE, disagreed, telling IWPR, “Their arrest was extended by investigators with the sole purpose of examining their cases in more detail.”


Hajieva is positive that Azerbaijan will not be penalised. “The Council of Europe is a highly esteemed body. I do not believe it will make any statements or take actions that could be interpreted as interference in the investigative process,” she said.


“After all, Georgia released all but ten of the political prisoners on its CE list, and managed to convince the Council that those ten should stay in jail, and that was that,” she said, adding that Azerbaijan might follow suit. “I believe we will find common ground with the CE.”


At the January 26-27 meeting, the Council will also hear a report on the presidential elections prepared by Andreas Gross and Guillermo Martinez Cassan. In the published version of their report, they urge Baku to “release all those detained after the events of October 15 and 16, or expedite their trial”.


There is also a strong domestic lobby in Azerbaijan demanding the release of all those arrested in October. A number of committees have been set up to fight for their rights and their cases are being reviewed by numerous local rights groups which keep the media and Baku-based international institutions informed.


However, attempts to hold street protests against the arrests have been thwarted, with the Baku mayor’s office denying rights groups and opposition parties permission to hold rallies.


“All those arrested in the wake of the events of October 15 and 16 should be amnestied,” said Azerbaijani poet Ramiz Rovshan, adding that extension of their arrest defeats the purpose of the latest presidential pardon.


Yet Rovshan feels optimistic. “Soon everything will change for the better. The country has no other choice than to become a sound democracy. I hope the year 2004 will go down in history as the year when Azerbaijan released its last political prisoners,” he told IWPR.


As for the newly released Hamidov, he told IWPR he intends to continue his active political career, adding he never asked for pardon as he considers himself unlawfully repressed, and is determined to seek full acquittal.


At the same time, Hamidov did not rule out the possibility of siding with the new president in the name of national interests, such as the country’s national integrity, reiterating his controversial view that military force should be used to seize back Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian enclave of Azerbaijan lost to separatist forces there in the early Nineties.


But on the subject of political prisoners, Hamidov was pessimistic, saying, “The majority of political prisoners will not be released unless their will is broken. I do not believe the authorities will fully comply with their obligations to the (Council of Europe).”


Zarema Velikhanova is an independent journalist in Azerbaijan


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