Azerbaijan: Prisoner Amnesty Urged

The Council of Europe is pressuring Baku to start releasing political prisoners.

Azerbaijan: Prisoner Amnesty Urged

The Council of Europe is pressuring Baku to start releasing political prisoners.

Human rights organisations in Azerbaijan are hoping for a partial amnesty of political prisoners in the New Year.


Their hopes come despite Baku's defiant reaction to a recent Council of Europe, CoE, report released back in October, which criticised the authorities for dragging their heels on the issue of releasing political prisoners.


Baku insists they have no such people in its jails and that individuals mentioned in the report had been jailed because they had committed crimes.


But Azerbaijan's eagerness to accelerate its integration into Europe might well prompt it to move on the CoE demands.


Releasing or retrying individuals classified by the council as political prisoners in its reports was one of the conditions for Azerbaijan's accession to its ranks in January 2001.


"One political prisoner is one too many," said CoE secretary-general Walter Schwimmer in October. "The problem should not exist in a Council of Europe member state."


Director of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan, Eldar Zeynalov, told IWPR that he expected the government of President Heidar Aliev to respond to the report, but in its own time. "When everyone is quiet, they'll suddenly pardon these people," he said.


In Zeynalov's opinion, this is likely to happen in the run-up to the first anniversary of its accession to the CoE on January 25, once the furore over the prisoners list has died down.


Zeyalov said that he was disappointed that the report had not gone far enough but admitted this had not been the council's remit.


"The main task of the CoE mission had been to give an answer on whether or not there are political prisoners in Azerbaijan," he said. "They have given their answer. Yes, there are."


But not all are in agreement on who should be released. Schwimmer has stated that the 17 cases outlined in the report ought to viewed as "pilot cases" - to test the definitions of who may be considered a political prisoner and who not.


Since the CoE specifies that it is up to humans rights groups to identify political prisoners, the definition of the term has become a focal point of argument not only between NGOs and the authorities but between opposition groups too.


Azerbaijan's council representative Agshin Mehtiev told IWPR that he was irritated about the attitude of certain human rights organisations "making lists of separatists and terrorists who should not be freed".


Most of those mentioned in the October report are believed to have been involved in attempts to topple the Aliev administration in the mid Nineties, yet they have all been charged with other offences - from embezzlement to high treason.


Baku thus says that everyone on the CoE's list has been convicted of criminal offences and that the council should not interfere with its justice system.


The only detainee to have his case reviewed by the authorities is the former interior minister Isgander Hamidov, who received a fourteen-year sentence for abuse of power and embezzlement in 1995.


European investigators believe that the sentence was disproportionate to the crimes and that this gave "a clear indication that Hamidov is a political prisoner".


"Official propaganda," said the CoE report, "accuses Hamidov of being one of the persons principally responsible for the 'military debacle' in Karabakh."


It seems strange that the authorities have chosen to review Hamidov's case, since he is known as the head of a former nationalist group, with a reputation for violent reprisals on critical media. The more cynical observers believe that Hamidov is being re-tried because it is almost certain he will be sent right back to jail. They believe his retrial is just an insincere gesture to the CoE.


Despite this, many remain hopeful that the release of political prisoners will be accelerated. The director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, Leila Yunus, said that at least the CoE report recognises that there is a problem that urgently needs addressing.


Shahin Rzaev is a regular IWPR contributor.

Karabakh, Azerbaijan
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