Ilgar Mammadov detained during a protest rally in Baku, 2013.

© 2013 Turkhan Kerimov (RFE/RL)

Azerbaijan is finally facing consequences for keeping political activist Ilgar Mammadov behind bars in violation of his rights and its legal obligations. On Thursday, the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers decided to trigger legal infringement proceedings against the country.

This may seem like a baby step, but it’s not. Rather, it’s unprecedented and bold – something the Council of Europe has never done before. The proceedings could ultimately lead to suspending Azerbaijan’s voting rights or its expulsion from the Council of Europe.

In May 2014, the European Court for Human Rights delivered an unambiguous judgement: It found the detention, since February 2013, of political analyst and critic Mammadov illegal, stating it was aimed at “silenc[ing] and punish[ing] him for criticizing the government.” The court made it clear that Mammadov should be freed. More than three years later, Mammadov is still behind bars – despite more than a dozen resolutions by the Committee of Ministers requiring the Azerbaijani government to release Mammadov and a dedicated inquiry launched by Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland into Azerbaijan’s failure to do so.

Last week’s decision is a welcome demonstration of resolve, and I hope it will end Baku’s scorn for the court. Infringement is a lengthy process, so any decision on Azerbaijan’s expulsion from the Council of Europe will not happen that soon. This gives the Azerbaijani government a last chance to do the right thing and release Mammadov.

Mammadov’s case is not isolated. Dozens of critics, human rights defenders, and media professionals, including blogger Mehman Huseinov, arrested in February, and journalist Afgan Mukhtarli, abducted in Tbilisi in May, are unjustly in prison in violation of human rights standards. Some activists released from prison in 2016 have been hit with travel bans and cannot work because authorities have effectively closed their organizations.

The government’s international partners, including the European Union, should make it clear that continued disregard for the court and the failure to release political prisoners will lead to more serious consequences.