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Azerbaijan: Heed Council of Europe’s Call for Rights Reform

Political Prisoners a Key Concern Requiring Urgent Attention

(Strasbourg, January 24, 2013) – Azerbaijan’s leadership should take to heart and act on the clear message sent by one of Europe’s foremost human rights bodies about the urgent need for rights reform, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, convening in Strasbourg, adopted a much-anticipated resolution on Azerbaijan’srights record on January 23, 2013. The resolution highlights many outstanding concerns and calls on the Azerbaijani government to undertake a series of long overdue reforms.

“The assembly has made clear just how troubling and unacceptable Azerbaijan’s record is,” said Giorgi Gogia, senior South Caucasus researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The onus now lies with the Azerbaijani government to take the steps the assembly has identified as necessary, and on Azerbaijan’s international partners to make clear just how imperative these steps are to a successful relationship.”

In a hugely disappointing move, a second resolution on Azerbaijan before the assembly, dedicated to the issue of political prisoners, was defeated following unrelenting government obstruction.

The Azerbaijani government’s use of criminal prosecution as a tool for political retaliation is a well-documented problem, which the authorities have long refused to acknowledge.

The Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly consists of 636 members from the council’s 47 member states, including Azerbaijan, which became a member in 2001. Among the membership commitments it accepted at the time was that it would release all political prisoners and stop silencing its critics by prosecuting them on politically motivated charges.

“Twelve years into its Council of Europe membership, not only has Azerbaijan failed to make good on its promises, it has gone to great lengths to obstruct the institution’s work on political prisoners,” Gogia said. “But the government’s bullying cannot change the facts, which remain equally valid and if anything, even more pressing to address.”

For three years the Azerbaijani government refused to allow the assembly rapporteur in charge of the issue of political prisoners access to the country, and challenged the mandate as unjustly singling out Azerbaijan. As a result, the rapporteur, German parliamentarian Christoph Strässer, was compelled to produce a report without being able to visit Azerbaijan. But his detailed account is authoritative, and is the result of extensive, in-depth consultations with Azerbaijani lawyers, as well as local and international human rights groups.

A presidential pardon in December 2012 resulted in the release of a number of prisoners, including 13 who were of concern to the rapporteur on political prisoners. Among them were five wrongfully imprisoned independent journalists, human rights defenders, and activists whose cases Human Rights Watch has followed closely. But many others remain in detention on a range of trumped-up charges,Human Rights Watch said.

The resolution on political prisoners in Azerbaijan highlights concern that the issue remains unresolved “despite the continuous efforts of the Assembly.” It notes a number of new cases in which the authorities have sentenced political and civil activists, journalists, bloggers, and peaceful protesters to heavy prison terms, and calls on the Azerbaijani government to ensure their immediate and unconditional release.

Significantly, the broader resolution adopted by the assembly also highlights the problem of political prisoners in Azerbaijan, concluding, “The combination of the restrictive implementation of freedoms with unfair trials and the undue influence of the executive results in the systemic detention of people who may be considered prisoners of conscience.”

The resolution further acknowledges Azerbaijan’s signature and ratification of key Council of Europe legal instruments, but expresses concern that selective application of some of the laws has resulted in “growing concern with regard to rule of law and respect for human rights.” Among the specific concerns highlighted in the resolution are Azerbaijan’s failure to hold elections in line with international standards, lack of judicial independence, torture and ill-treatment, and “fabricated charges against activists and journalists.” The resolution makes concrete recommendations for steps to bring Azerbaijan’s record in line with its accession commitments.

In a December submissionto the assembly’s Monitoring Committee, which was responsible for drawing up the resolution on Azerbaijan’s broader human rights commitments as a Council of Europe member, Human Rights Watch highlighted a range of key areas of rights concern. These include politically motivated prosecutions of civil and political activists; violations of freedom of expression, including harassment, intimidation, and attacks against journalists; and the continued existence of criminal libel laws. Others are severe restrictions on freedom of assembly, including through the imposition of new, increased sanctions for participation in and organization of unauthorized protests; ill-treatment and torture in police custody; illegal expropriations of property and forced evictions of Baku residents; and violations of freedom of religion.

“Today’s vote was a test of the assembly’s resolve to ensure that facts would prevail over politicalbullying,” Gogia said. “While it partially failed this test, the core message about the urgent need for rights reform, including on the need to end political imprisonment, couldn’t be clearer.”

Azerbaijan’s international partners should make its fulfillment of the assembly’s calls for reforms, including the release of those held on politically motivated charges, a key part of their dialogues with Baku, Human Rights Watch said.

“The next test is on those who can help ensure that today’s much-needed spotlight on Azerbaijan’s poor rights record translates into real change for those suffering persecution at the hands of the Azerbaijani government,” Gogia said.

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