Pitiful meeting in Baku epitomizes Council of Europe’s failure to hold Azerbaijan accountable for rights violations
Azerbaijani civil society representatives have called on the Secretary General of the Council of Europe (CoE) and CoE member states to demand drastic action in the face of the country’s worsening human rights crisis. The first meeting of the joint working group on human rights issues in Azerbaijan – comprised mainly of pro-government NGOs, government officials and members of parliament — did not come close to heeding the calls for immediate, concrete action, say activists.
The working group was initiated by CoE Secretary-General Thorbjørn Jagland to “retrieve the dialogue between civil society and Azerbaijani authorities”, according to a Council of Europe press release.
Neither the procedures nor selection criteria for appointment to the working group have been made public, and key figures dealing with the issue of political prisoners were excluded from the process.
This group includes two MPs, Samad Seyidov and Ali Huseynli, who have publically stated that there are no political prisoners in Azerbaijan, and have accused the recently imprisoned human rights defenders of legal violations. This casts doubt on their capacity to take an objective and balanced approach. Although the working group has more than ten members, its composition lacks independent voices and contributions from figures familiar with human rights issues. This further undermines the group’s stated purpose.
An informal survey of current political prisoners in Azerbaijan revealed that in their view, the vast majority (90%) of the people involved in this working group are viewed as non-objective. More than 10 political prisoners (including Ilgar Mammadov, Tofig Yagublu, Leyla Yunus, Intigam Aliyev, NIDA members and others) have signed a petition declaring their concern over attempts by government controlled NGOs to manipulate their cases for political gain – i.e. to whitewash the government’s repressive policies. The prisoners stated that they do not trust the representatives of such NGOs (including Saida Gojamanli, Sahib Mammadov, Alimammad Nuriyev, Novella Jafaroglu) to provide proper defense of their legal rights.
Perhaps the most notable occurrence in relation to this meeting was that well-known journalist and human rights activist Khadija Ismayilova was disinvited to the meeting at the last minute. Although she received as official invitation to participate in the working group on October 21st, she was not allowed in on the actual day of the meeting. “I was told that I was not on the guest list. I called Vugar Aliyev in the President’s Office, and he said he was surprised and said that it was impossible. Then he called back and said that some of the other participants opposed my attendance,” Ismayilova said.
One of the most vocal opponents of Ismayilova’s participation was Sahib Mammadov, Chairman of the Citizens’ Labor Rights Protection League NGO. Mammadov heads the secretariat of the group, and is notorious for his defamatory comments towards human rights NGOs and international donors. For instance, during the most recent session of the OSCE/ ODIHR in Warsaw in September, he accused Azerbaijan’s human rights NGOs of money laundering and lack of transparency – which, he argued, justify the repressive policies of the regime.
The majority of the members of the current Working Group have previously served as members of the Committee for Public Control over Penitentiary Service under the Ministry of Justice. The failure of this Committee to function effectively is discouraging in relation to the activity of the current Working Group.
We would like to emphasize in particular that this group has been designed to reduce the role of the Co-rapporteur on Political Prisoners, who is mandated to prepare a report. The main task of the Working Group will be to contribute government-approved views, under the guise of an independent voice.
Thus at an event billed as an opportunity for dialogue between civil society and government, aimed at achieving concrete improvements to the human rights situation, human rights defenders are unwelcome. The ongoing harassment of Khadija Ismayilova and the prevention of her participation in the working group is nothing but a full-blown assault on values the Council of Europe has pledged to uphold.
Secretary General Jagland,
Council of Europe member states:
The alarm bells keep ringing. There are more than 90 political prisoners behind bars. Presidential pardons for innocent people who have been imprisoned for expressing their opinions is not a solution to the human rights crisis in Azerbaijan. The Council of Europe and its member states cannot continue to ignore the situation. Azerbaijan’s civil society is ringing the alarm. The Council of Europe needs to answer this call.