Human rights activist and former U.S. diplomat Rebecca Vincent believes the election of Anne Brasseur as the new President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is "a welcome step for human rights in Azerbaijan". She also explains why President Aliyev is wrong on the issue of "political prisoners", which she views as one of the most pressing human rights issues in the country.
This week, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) elected a new President, MP Anne Brasseur of Luxembourg. Is this good news for the Azerbaijani human rights and pro-democracy community?
Yes, I view the election of Anne Brasseur as the new PACE president as a welcome step, both for democracy and human rights in Azerbaijan, and more broadly for the Council of Europe region. Brasseur, and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group in general, have consistently taken a stronger position on democracy and human rights issues than their counterparts in the European Democrat Group (EDG), and have supported specific initiatives of Azerbaijani civil society groups, such as a side event on the pre-election human rights situation in Azerbaijan during the October 2013 PACE session.
I also shared concern with many civil society groups about the potential election of Brasseur’s opponent, Robert Walter, the British Conservative MP who headed PACE’s election observation delegation for Azerbaijan’s October 2013 presidential election. Inexplicably, the delegation claimed that they had observed a “free, fair and transparent electoral process.” This statement sharply contrasted the findings of the mission of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), as well as the Azerbaijani Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center, which documented widespread fraud and violations in the campaign period and on election day, and declared that the election fell far short of meeting international standards. Walter’s role in this mission led many, including me, to seriously question his integrity.
Do you think Brasseur’s election may change the status quo regarding the issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan?
I hope so. There was some interest from ALDE in supporting an initiative of civil society groups to introduce a motion for a resolution to appoint a new special rapporteur on political prisoners, which is planned to be put forward during the next PACE session in April. I hope that Brasseur will use her position to encourage support for this motion, and to take other action to hold Azerbaijan accountable for implementing its human rights obligations as a Council of Europe member. This is particularly important in light of the fact that Azerbaijan will take over the Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers from May to November this year.
President Aliyev says there are no political prisoners in Azerbaijan. He made this clear during his recent trip to Brussels. Is he right? He refers to a PACE decision from January 2013.
President Aliyev’s repeated claim that there are no political prisoners in Azerbaijan is simply not true. Politically motivated detention and imprisonment has become one of the most pressing human rights issues in the country, with 133 cases of political prisoners as of today. Further, Aliyev’s assertion that PACE has found that there are no political prisoners in the country is also untrue. He refers to the defeat in January 2013 of a resolution on 'The follow-up to the issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan’.
However, PACE passed another resolution that same day, on 'The honouring of obligations and commitments by Azerbaijan’. It included language expressing concern about reports of politically motivated arrests and unfair trials:
"14. The Assembly is alarmed by reports from human rights defenders and domestic and international non- governmental organisations (NGOs) about the alleged use of fabricated charges against activists and journalists. 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 also included these recommendations, calling on the Azerbaijani authorities to:
"18.4. with regard to alleged political prisoners and prisoners of conscience:
18.4.1. review the cases of human rights defenders, activists and journalists detained on criminal charges following trials whose conformity with human rights standards has been called into question by civil society and the international community;
18.4.2. use all available legal tools to release those prisoners whose detention gives rise to justified doubts and legitimate concerns;
18.4.3. release on humanitarian grounds alleged political prisoners whose state of health raises concern;
18.4.4. fully implement the resolutions of the Assembly related to alleged political prisoners in Azerbaijan.”
Do you think Baku's human rights problems get enough attention in the West, especially at the government level?
I have long argued that the West does not give the importance it should to human rights issues in Azerbaijan, influenced heavily by other interests that Western governments have in Azerbaijan, such as energy and security. This is the case with both individual governments and regional and international organisations, in particular the Council of Europe and the European Union. However, this position is short-sighted, as the best long-term guarantor of Western interests in Azerbaijan is a stable and mature democratic system that respects human rights and the rule of law.