Over the past few weeks, much international attention has been focused on Azerbaijan. In the midst of an unprecedented human rights crackdown, there have been a few small glimmers of hope. Through a pardon decree on 17 March, Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev released 14 political prisoners in one fell swoop. Also on 17 March, the Baku Court of Appeal released a jailed journalist on parole and, on 28 March, Azerbaijan’s Supreme Court similarly released a jailed human rights lawyer on parole.
Perhaps in reaction to these releases, Aliyev was given a warm welcome by the US government during the Nuclear Security Summit at the end of March in Washington. Despite calls from human rights groups to freeze him out, the president was granted meetings with Joe Biden, John Kerry, and Penny Pritzker, US secretary of commerce, as well as a photo opportunity with Barack Obama.
Before Aliyev embarked on his return journey home, the supposedly "frozen" Nagorno-Karabakh conflict erupted again, with dozens of people reportedly killed in the first few days alone. At the same time, Azerbaijan has been experiencing serious economic troubles, as oil prices fall and the national currency collapses. Unemployment is high, resulting in a series of protests rocking Azerbaijan's regions in January. To top it all off, several stories related to corruption of Azerbaijan’s ruling family have already emerged from the Panama Papers leak.
The crackdown continues
In the midst of all of this, the ongoing human rights crackdown in Azerbaijan deserves sustained focus. There are still dozens of political prisoners in Azerbaijani jails, guilty of nothing more than disagreeing with the ruling regime.
Parliament has been busy adopting regressive legislation, civil society is largely paralysed with a number of NGOs facing criminal investigations, and journalists are working in a climate of fear.
The existence of high-profile political prisoners ensures that the Azerbaijani regime always has a hand to play when it wants something from the west
While the recent releases of political prisoners are a step in the right direction, they are far from ideal. None of these 16 people should have ever spent a single day in jail. Releasing them after slapping them with trumped-up charges, putting them through show trials, and in some cases, mistreating them in detention, hardly represents justice. Further, the criminal convictions against the two paroled prisoners still stand, and they are subject to travel restrictions.
The 14 pardoned prisoners have also been left with criminal records, as their convictions have not been overturned. Some of the released prisoners are prohibited from standing for public office, joining the bar association and running a non-profit organisation, and face other restrictions which impede their professional activities.
The exclusion of certain political prisoners from the pardon decree speaks volumes. Prominent investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova remains jailed, targeted for exposing corruption among Azerbaijan’s ruling elite. Journalist Seymur Hezi is still behind bars, doing time on the all-purpose charge of “hooliganism” so favoured by the authorities when nothing else will stick. Youth activist Ilkin Rustemzade — initially arrested for the great crime of doing the Harlem Shake — remains imprisoned. Opposition leader Ilgar Mammadov was also not released, despite the European Court of Human Rights ordering the Azerbaijani government to do so. The list goes on.
28 March: Azerbaijan's Supreme Court orders the release of Intigam Aliyev, human rights defender. Source: Europe Without Political Prisoners. As the human rights community has pointed out, the revolving door of releases and new politically motivated arrests seems to be still in motion. On 30 March, 79 year-old writer Akram Aylisli was detained at Baku airport, told he was under a travel ban and questioned for 12 hours before being informed that he is facing criminal hooliganism charges.
Investigations and trials are on-going in a number of other cases of political prisoners, including some arrested in connection with the January economic protests.
Need for European action
Washington’s warm welcome for Aliyev and failure to take a strong stand on the release of the remaining political prisoners and further concrete reforms was a mistake. And so far, Europe has not done much better. The reactions of many European politicians to the president's actions were largely congratulatory with little focus given to the work which remains.
A prime example is EU High Representative Federica Mogherini, who was quick to praise the “positive development” and take partial credit for releases she had not called for — at least not publicly — during her recent trip to Baku. The EU's reaction to the release of human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev was also overwhelmingly positive. Both statements gave a perfunctory nod to the EU’s “hopes” that others “currently imprisoned or under restriction of movement in Azerbaijan on political grounds” would be released, but a clearer and stronger EU stance is needed.
One thing is for sure: rewarding Aliyev now without pressing for the release of the remaining prisoners and further reforms will only encourage further politically motivated arrests
President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) Pedro Agramunt also applauded the move. In his reaction to the initial pardons, Agramunt neglected to mention the fate of the other political prisoners, including Ilgar Mammadov.
Azerbaijan’s continued detention of Mammadov, despite the European Court judgment ordering his release, is becoming a serious problem for the Council of Europe, and has led to repeated condemnation from the Committee of Ministers and a rare investigation, initiated by Secretary-General Thorbjørn Jagland, into Azerbaijan’s compliance with its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.
In his reaction to human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev’s release on parole, Agramunt added a concessionary line on Mammadov’s case: “I will continue my dialogue with the Azeri authorities on the political activists’ [sic] case of Ilgar Mammadov”. This, however, fell far short of the tough position needed. The Council of Europe's inability to secure Mammadov's release is now undermining the credibility of the entire body, which must take firm action to hold Azerbaijan accountable for its obligations as a member state.
Europe’s haste in praising these releases without a strong stance on further concrete reforms is short-sighted. These prisoner releases signal a rare chance for real negotiation with a regime that has been hostile to the international human rights community for many years.
These prisoner releases signal a rare chance for real negotiation with a regime that has been hostile to the international human rights community for many years
The EU in particular must seize this opportunity to ensure that clear human rights benchmarks are included in its on-going negotiations with Azerbaijan. They must address the need for the immediate and unconditional release of all remaining political prisoners, but also broader reforms, as the existence of political prisoners is a symptom of a much more serious disease — the Aliyev regime's systematic destruction of Azerbaijan's democratic institutions, which is simply incompatible with EU values.
So far, the EU leadership has ignored strong calls by the European Parliament in a September 2015 resolution to explore the use of individual sanctions against Azerbaijani officials responsible for human rights violations. But that resolution, coupled with a similar call in the US through the Azerbaijan Democracy Act tabled in Congress, may have in fact triggered the releases, showing that international pressure on the Azerbaijani authorities works.
Now is the time to sustain, and even increase that pressure and not to accept these releases as the endgame, only to end up with a new wave of political arrests in coming months.
End the vicious cycle
One thing is certain: rewarding Aliyev now without pressing for the release of the remaining prisoners and further reforms will only encourage further politically motivated arrests. The existence of high-profile political prisoners ensures that the Azerbaijani regime always has a hand to play when it wants something from the west.
Human beings cannot continue to be used as bargaining chips in these political games. This vicious cycle of politically motivated arrests must be stopped once and for all, and the underlying causes addressed.
Rather than patting Aliyev on the back and ignoring the plight of the dozens of other political prisoners — not to mention the overall dire state of human rights in the country — now is the time to press further.
An opening has been created, and Washington, Brussels, and Strasbourg must take this opportunity to live up to their stated commitments to promote democracy and human rights in Azerbaijan.