Human Rights Developments
The treason trials of President Heydar Aliyev=s personal enemies, brutal treatment in detention, and continued repression of free speech stood in grim contrast to the Azerbaijan government=s efforts to join international human rights institutions in 1996. Notably, on May 31, the parliament (Milli Mejlis)ratified the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment and several other human rights-related international conventions, and in June Azerbaijan received guest status with the Council of Europe.
But continued ill treatment in detention demonstrated how far Azerbaijan has to go in order to conform with Council of Europe standards and with the torture convention. At least two individuals died in pre-trial detention as a result of brutal beatings. Ilqar Samedov, arrested on narcotics possession charges on June 14, was sent to a hospital on June 15 and died on June 29 as a result, according to a coroner=s report, Aof blows to the head with a blunt object.@ After Samedov=s transfer to a hospital, the case investigator refused to allow his father to see his dying son; moreover, police officials waited three days before making the death public. A member of the Islamist Revival Party died in April after seventeen days in the Ministry of National Security pre-trial facility.
Police routinely beat those detained at the Baku City Police Department. Victims included Col. Tofiq Qasimov, who was beaten for several days in January; Ramiz Jalilov, who received multiple injuries on September 30, 1995; Yashar Tezel (see below); and a young OPON (Special Police Detachment) member accused of participation in a 1995 coup attempt, whose parents reported to Human Rights Watch/Helsinki that police beat their son for two days and threatened to make him sit on a bottle in order to extract a confession from him.
Human Rights Watch/Helsinki also received credible reports from the attorneys and relatives of individuals charged in connection with various coup attempts that they were detained for as long as a month in the basement of the Presidential Special Department, deprived of meetings with attorneys, of running water, and of toilet facilities.
The fallout from three years of coup attempts and alleged assassination attempts on President Aliyev culminated in a series of trials and convictions marred by serious due process violations. In at least four cases, the prosecution lodged accusations of participation in the March 1995 coup attempt long (up to a year) after the arrests of the accused on illegal weapons charges. These include Adyl Hajiev, sentenced in September to fourteen years of hard labor, Ramiz Jalilov (see above), a family friend of Rovshan Javadov (the 1995 coup leader); Rahab Qaziyev, brother of former Defense Minister Rahim Qaziyev (see below); and Gen. Vahid Musayev. The latter three were put on trial on treason charges. Investigators routinely denied defense attorneys access to these men.
Police arrested former State Secretary Panah Huseynov on April 16 on charges of misuse of state property, bringing to eleven the number of former state ministers in prison or awaiting trial. In connection with Huseynov=s arrest, police also arrested Musavat party leader Arif Hajiyev (in violation of the immunity he enjoys as a member of parliament), allegedly for obstructing justice, and Turkish journalist Yashar Tezel, whom they released two weeks later. On April 18 police in Nakhchivan raided former president Abulfaz Elchibey=s headquarters and arrested Qiyas Sadykhov, his former chief of staff, and his brother Niyas (whom they reportedly beat) for allegedly hiding Huseynov. Both were released in August.
The Supreme Court of Azerbaijan declined to retry former Defense Minister Rahim Qaziyev, who was sentenced to death in absentia in 1995 for major military defeats in Nagorno Karabakh and who was arrested in Moscow and extradited to Azerbaijan in April. Deputy Procurator General Isa Najafov told a Human Rights Watch/Helsinki representative in Baku that sentencing an individual to death in absentia did not violate due process, demonstrating a devastating lack of understanding of Azerbaijan=s obligations under international law.
In May police in Nakhchivan detained the wife, son, brother and cousin of Sahib Huseynov, accused of plotting a 1993 failed assassination attempt on President Aliyev. The wife and son were detained for eight hours at the Nakhchivan airport; police brutally beat the brother in attempt to learn Huseynov=s whereabouts and later released him and his cousin. In early October, police in the Sharur district held Ahostage@ relatives of Popular Front Party member Kamal Talibov, and detained him on unclear charges.
Popular Front leader Arif Pashayev was released from prison under a May presidential amnesty, and former Minister of Defense Tofiq Qasimov was released from custody in February after intense public pressure and concern for his sharply declining health, but the reportedly trumped-up charges of treason remained.
The government continued to stifle political speech. Government censors routinely refused to allow publication of issues of opposition newspapers that contained articles criticizing President Aliyev, and the government closed the only independent television station in four counties. The Press and Information Ministry attempted to close Avrasiya (Baku), an independent daily newspaper, under the premise that its founders were not Azerbaijani citizens. In Lenkoran, Lenkoran Hayati (Lenkoran Life)journalist Israfil Agayev was sentenced to three years for libel in connection with an article critical of the local public prosecutor.
On October 22, university students Nasi Sharafkhanov and Bayram Ismailov received prison sentences of one and two years respectively, and their professor, Yashar Mammedli, was amnestied on charges of calling for the violent overthrow of the government, a step which violated free speech rights and was clearly aimed at intimidating the Popular Front Youth Organization, of which the students were leaders. The charges were related to anti-government leaflets they had distributed in January.
The Right to Monitor
Nakhchivan police routinely harassed Women=s Rights Society activists at the Nakhchivan airport in an obvious attempt to block the flow of information to Baku on political prisoners in the area. The Ministry of Justice repeatedly refused to register the Committee for Human Rights and Democracy, citing, among other things, the organization=s failure to provide copies of the founder=s passports, which is not among registration rules. The government continued to deny the International Committee of the Red Cross access to pre-trial detainees, but granted unhindered access to prisoners of war.
The Role of the International Community
The Council of Europe in June voted to grant Azerbaijan guest membership, and the European Union signed a partnership and cooperation agreement with Azerbaijan but, at the end of 1996, had not ratified an interim agreement. The European Parliament had not, as of this writing, given its assent to the agreement, which requires respect for human rights and democratic principles before it can be ratified by E.U. member states and Azerbaijan.
The United States
The Clinton administration vigorously opposed a new bill that would tie U.S. aid to the Azerbaijani government to proportional aid to Nagorno Karabakh. U.S. aid was previously banned due to Azerbaijan=s economic blockade of Armenia. The U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan in private meetings with President Aliyev pressed for the release of Tofiq Qasimov and raised concern for the health of former Minister of Interior Iskandar Hamidov, now serving a fourteen-year prison sentence. Embassy officials also raised concern over the denial of registration to the Word of Life Church.
Human Rights Developments
Censorship and harassment of the independent media and trade unions, police brutality during public demonstrations, and presidential incursion on the power and independence of the parliament and judiciary punctuated the ever-worsening status of human rights in Belarus during 1996.
The anti-democratic tenor of the year was set by President Lukashenko=s announcements that he would remain in office longer than the maximum two terms stipulated by the constitution, and Ado away with@ the Aunnecessary@ parliament. In December 1995 he issued a decree ordering government officials to ignore all decisions of the Constitutional Court that overturned presidential decrees; in June 1996 he proposed that the court=s jurisdiction be vastly curtailed, and that the president appoint half the justices.
The government maintained a virtual monopoly over the media in 1996. Following the cancellation of their printing contracts in late 1995, three leading independent newspapers were forced to use printers in neighboring Lithuania. The only independent cable station was closed before the parliamentary elections on the pretext of needing transmitter repairs, but was allowed to reopen after agreeing never to broadcast political reports. In September, an independent rock music radio station that broadcast news was forced off the air due to Ainterference with government frequencies.@ Five independent weeklies had their bank accounts frozen. Individual journalists were also subjected to harassment in 1996, including physical attacks on Russian television reporters and the wife of a correspondent for Radio Liberty=s Russian Service.
The government also directly interfered with dissident activities. During an April 26 march commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, more than 200 of the close to 50,000 marchers were arrested and, after summary trials usually held inside their jail cells, given administrative sentences of three to fifteen days. Police beat many of the demonstrators, as well as innocent passersby, at the rally and again at police headquarters. The next day, Juri Khadyka and Vyacheslav Seivchuk, two leaders of the Belarusian Popular Front, a political opposition party that had sponsored the march, were arrested and eventually charged with organizing a mass disturbance. Similar beatings and arrests occurred at a demonstration held outside the president=s office on May 30, which had been organized to protest the continued detention of Khadyka, Seivchuk and seven other Ukrainians who had been imprisoned after the April 26 march.
Harassment of trade unions also continued in 1996. Following a subway workers= strike in August 1995, which special troops forcibly dispersed, all of the picketers were fired. Formal applications to hold pickets were subsequently rejected or severely restricted in size, and all unions were required to reregister with the government, in violation of International Labor Organization treaties. True to the presidential decree banning all trade union activities Ain the interest of preserving public order,@ in May 1996 leaders of Poland=s Solidarity trade union who were meeting in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, were detained and then deported by police.
The Right to Monitor
While local human rights organizations were not the direct subject of intimidation, government censorship of the independent press limited dissemination of information about human rights conditions in the country. In April, the Justice Ministry sent a letter to the Belarusian Popular Front, which had been openly critical of the government=s human rights record, warning that it risked being banned. Police also illegally searched the party=s office and arrested those present. The Belarusian Soros Foundation continued as in 1995 to be attacked in the government-owned media for its funding of independent newspapers and organizations working to promote democracy in the country. In addition, a presidential decree requiring the reregistration of all private organizations inhibited human rights monitoring. Human Rights Watch/Helsinki was not aware of restrictions placed on monitoring by international human rights groups.
The Role of the International Community
In June, the International Labor Organization submitted a list of recommendations to the Belarus government concerning normalization of relations with trade unions and reported on violations of Belarusian trade unions= rights to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe conducted a number of investigations into the government=s respect for human rights as part of its review of Belarus=s application for membership in the council, which was pending in 1996. The European Parliament and the OSCE sent observers to the November and December 1995 parliamentary elections. In January the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE issued a report on its findings that criticized limitations placed on media coverage of the candidates. In May, a delegation of the European Parliament, in conjunction with a committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, appealed to Belarus authorities to refrain from harassing members of political parties and others who voiced dissenting opinions publicly.
In 1995 the European Union and Belarus signed a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA), of which respect for human rights and democratic principles is a essential element, and parts of the European Union worked actively to improve Belarus= compliance with its human rights obligations. In June the European Parliament=s Foreign Affairs Committee asked the European Council of Ministers to postpone the entry into force of an underlying interim agreement Auntil there is evidence of an improvement in respect for the rule of law and democratic principle@ in Belarus, but the European Parliament=s Committee on External Relations recommended in July that the interim agreement be approved by the European Parliament. In May the European Parliament adopted a resolution expressing its concern about media censorship in Belarus and called on the European Union to support efforts to secure the immediate release of all prisoners of conscience there. In June the European Parliament adopted another resolution expressing regret about the worsening human rights situation in Belarus; as of this writing it had made no final decision on final ratification of the PCA.
The United States
The U.S. record regarding human rights in Belarus was mixed. The State Department=s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1995 was comprehensive and accurate and, in the wake of police brutality at public marches and government closure of an independent newspaper, the State Department actively urged the Belarusian government to observe its international obligations to comply with human rights standards. The State Department failed to issue any public protest when Belarusian Popular Front leaders Zenon Pazniak and Sergei Naumchyk were imprisoned in Belarus, but in August the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service granted the two men political asylum. Moreover, in November 1995, only seven weeks after the Belarus military shot down and killed two American balloonistsCan act that the White House had labeled as deliberateCthe U.S. Defense Department approved a $1,000,000 military aid package to assist Belarusian participation in NATO=s Partnership for Peace exercises.