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This week has been an important turning point for human rights in Azerbaijan. After managing for almost three years to silence Europe’s foremost human rights body through misrepresentation, obstruction and bullying, the Azerbaijani government has been sent a clear message: enough is enough. In a landmark vote on Tuesday, the Legal Affairs and Human Rights Committee of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly ensured that the Azerbaijani government’s abysmal record on one  key area of concern among many –  imprisonment as a tool for political retaliation – will at last come up for public debate and scrutiny.

At issue is three years of work by the Assembly’s rapporteur on political prisoners in Azerbaijan, German parliamentarian Christoph Strässer. His mandate reflects the Council of Europe’s recognition that Azerbaijan’s record on political prisoners is a serious problem. The issue dates back to 2001, when Azerbaijan was accepted as a member on the condition that it would release all political prisoners and stop silencing its critics by prosecuting them on politically motivated charges.

Eleven years on, not only is Azerbaijan failing to make good on its promises, it has also been obstructing the work of the Assembly’s rapporteur, refusing him access to the country, and challenging the mandate as unjustly singling out Azerbaijan. As a result, Strässer was compelled to prepare a report without being able to visit Azerbaijan. But his detailed account is authoritative, and the result of extensive, in-depth consultations with Azerbaijani lawyers, as well as local and international human rights groups.

Among the cases featured in the report is Vidadi Isganderov, a human rights defender who was sentenced to three years in prison following a flawed trial in August 2011. After running for office in the November 2010 parliamentary elections, Isganderov submitted a complaint to the authorities alleging vote rigging in his district. They failed to investigate even though video footage and other materials support Isganderov’s allegations.  Instead, they brought charges against him, and he was found guilty of interfering with the elections. 

Isganderov had long been on the government’s radar screen as head of the nongovernmental group Support for Protection of Democracy. His work had focused on, among other areas, defending the rights of homeowners who had lost large sums of money to bogus construction companies and also of people who had been victims of alleged police extortion.

With Tuesday’s vote, Isganderov and the many others the Azerbaijani government continues to keep behind bars on politically motivated charges will finally get the attention they so clearly deserve.

Last week the Azerbaijani authorities released nine political activists, but at least a dozen journalists, human rights defenders, and activists remain in detention in Azerbaijan on a range of trumped-up charges.

In June alone, two journalists and a human rights activist were arrested on what appear to be bogus charges in retaliation for their human rights work: Hilal Mammadov, editor-in-chief of the newspaper Tolishi Sado, was arrested on June 21 on alleged drug possession charges and sent to pre-trial custody for three months. On June 12, Mehman Huseynov, a blogger and photographer at the Institute for Reporters’ Freedoms and Safety, was arrested and charged with “hooliganism.” On June 8, police arrested Ilham Amiraslanov, an activist who worked on behalf of victims of a 2010 flood in eastern Azerbaijan, on trumped-up weapons possession charges.

For Tuesday’s vote to have real, practical meaning to Isganderov and the others imprisoned on wrongful charges, it is critical for Azerbaijan’s international partners, particularly its fellow member states of the Council of Europe, to step in. They should seize the momentum created by this week’s principled stance by the Council’s parliamentarians. They should press the Azerbaijani government to immediately release all those behind bars for political reasons and to stop using its criminal justice system as a tool for political retaliation. European Union governments should make clear that these steps are a firm requirement for Azerbaijan to have closer relations with the EU.

There is no need to wait for the report’s final adoption by the Assembly as a whole in October – though that will be an important test for the 636 delegates representing voters from the Council’s 47 members to show that principled leadership guided by facts should prevail over political manipulation.

The facts are, after all, well known. The clear message the Azerbaijani government received in Strasbourg this week was a long time coming, and deserves the full political backing of those in a position to leverage concrete results. Isganderov and the others languishing in Azerbaijan’s prisons deserve nothing less.

Veronika Szente Goldston is Europe and Central Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. Giorgi Gogia is a senior Europe and Central Asia researcher based in Tbilisi. 

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