Veronika Szente Goldston and Giorgi Gogia


STRASBOURG. June 28, 2012: The Council of Europe has sent a clear
message to Azerbaijan that it should stop using its criminal justice
system for political retaliation - but the pressure must be stepped up

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

At issue is three years of work by the assembly's rapporteur on
political prisoners in Azerbaijan, German parliamentarian Christoph
Strasser. 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, Strasser 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 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 Sadoi, 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." And 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 if Azerbaijan is to have closer relations.

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.

* This article was first published at the website of Public Service
Europe. 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

From: Baghdasarian