Hundreds of people attend an anti-corruption protest in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku on 23 September 2017. “Free Afgan Mukhtarli!” reads this poster. Image still via YouTube / RFE/RL. Some rights reserved.International bodies do not systematically raise the attack on fundamental freedoms in Azerbaijan in their relations with the country, even when human rights and the rule of law are a key part of their mandate. Public prosecutors are a case in point: international professional bodies do not address the instrumentalisation of the profession in the suppression of civil society and opposition.
The Executive Committee of the International Association of Prosecutors (IAP), a worldwide association that claims to “set and raise standards of professional conduct and ethics for prosecutors worldwide” meets in Baku in April. They should kick off a formal review of the compliance of Azerbaijani prosecutors with its professional standards. Ahead of the meeting, the Netherlands Helsinki Committee has addressed a complaint to the IAP on Azerbaijan, suggesting its prosecution service is “guilty of dishonourable conduct”.
On 11 April, when the IAP meeting is held, presidential elections are taking place in Azerbaijan. Ilham Aliyev will be re-elected president. So much can be predicted in a country with severe restrictions on freedom of expression and on civil society and opposition organising. The IAP representatives will have ample possibilities to reflect on the role of their colleagues in arriving at this sorry state of democracy. Azerbaijan’s main opposition leader Ilgar Mammadov has been in jail since 2013 on politically motivated charges. He was sentenced to seven years imprisonment in a trial replete with irregularities in witness testimony and court proceedings. The European Court of Human Rights has judged that the conviction was unjust, but until now Mammadov has not been released and rehabilitated.
Popular blogger Mehman Huseynov is in prison since March 2017 after launching an online discussion on the appointment of Aliyev’s wife as vice-president. His arrest happened after an earlier incident in January 2017 when he was abducted, dealt electric shocks, beaten up by police and presented in court (for disobeying police orders) with a bruised face. The authorities formally opened an inquiry into Huseynov’s allegations, but swiftly closed the inquiry claiming the allegations were groundless. He was then prosecuted for defamation of the police station and sentenced to two years.
The track record of the Azerbaijani prosecution service is a poignant illustration of the gap between the IAP commitments and the practice of its members
In these cases and in many others, public prosecutors have played a central role in the criminalisation of people exercising their right to engage in peaceful expression of views or political activity, or in the defense of those whose human rights are suppressed. They have flouted their duty to thoroughly investigate reports of torture and prosecute those responsible. These prosecutors have operated in violation of the spirit and letter of the IAP’s professional standards which state that prosecutors shall “protect and accused person’s right to a fair trial” and “respect, protect and uphold the universal concept of human dignity and human rights”. Until now, the IAP has no clear procedure to hold their members accountable for (non-)compliance with these standards, despite several requests by a broad group of civil society organisations, including Amnesty International, Article 19, the International Federation for Human Rights and a large number of Transparency International chapters.
The track record of the Azerbaijani prosecution service is a poignant illustration of the gap between the IAP commitments and the practice of its members. Structural and procedural factors limit the independence and impartiality of the prosecution service in Azerbaijan, but even more important may be a culture of obedience to the executive branch of government. Prosecutors in this system are likely heavily pre-selected for willingness or even eagerness to comply. Occasional cases of criticism from inside the profession are harshly suppressed. In 2015, Rufat Safarov of the Zardab District Prosector’s Office resigned over “rampant dishonesty and violation of people’s rights”, stating that “thieves and corrupt officials are free and enjoying life, while innocent people languish in prison”. This led to Safarov being prosecuted for bribery himself. The evidence presented in court seemed clumsily fabricated and court procedures very questionable. He was convicted to five years imprisonment in September 2016. He is included in the political prisoners list issued by Azerbaijani human rights defenders.
Even at the Council of Europe, set up to protect and promote human rights, democracy and the rule of law, not all parts of the organisation take on board the mounting number of European Court Human Rights judgments and clear positions of the Council’s Commissioner for Human Rights. The Council has a professional advisory and monitoring body for the prosecutor’s profession, the Consultative Council of European Prosecutors, but this year’s report on the independence and impartiality of prosecutors does not mention Azerbaijan one time, even though it supposedly uses “information contained in the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, (…) reports of the Human Rights Commissioner (…)”.
Both the IAP and the prosecutors’ body of the Council of Europe do not raise grave human rights concerns in their contacts with persons who are instrumental in state repression. This sends a message of “business as usual” in international rule of law cooperation; human rights can be overlooked when it comes to joint work on the rule of law. This is an inconsistent and ambiguous position, which should be replaced by an honest review of compliance with professional standards.