Council of Europe Rejects Report on Azerbaijani Prisoners in Landmark Vote

Jan 24, 2013, 05:41 ET from Azerbaijan Monitor

STRASBOURG, France, January 24, 2013 /PRNewswire/ --

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) on Wednesday rejected a Legal Affairs Report on Political Prisoners in Azerbaijan by special rapporteur Christoph Strasser of Germany, a rare event by the human rights body.

A sizable majority voted down Strasser's controversial report, with 125 against, 79 in favour and 20 abstaining.

Meanwhile, a separate Monitoring Report on Azerbaijan by Pedro Agramunt of Spain and Joseph Debono Grech of Malta was overwhelmingly approved by PACE and praised as balanced, comprehensive and inclusive.

"I am pleased to see that reason prevailed," said Azerbaijani MP Elkhan Suleymanov. "PACE could not have approved two contradictory reports in one session."

Suleymanov pointed out that the Strasser Report was only centred around two individual activists, while the Monitoring Report was based on fact-finding visits and consultations with the authorities, civil society, NGOs, journalists and independent lawyers.

The two reports further differed over the number of alleged political prisoners, with the Monitoring Report listing 22 (21 of which have since been pardoned) and the Strasser Report giving 85 names, a number that was revised downwards hours before the session.

"The approval of the Strasser Report would have harmed both, Azerbaijan's reputation and the Council of Europe's credibility," Suleymanov said.

During a heated debate ahead of the vote, the Strasser report was heavily criticised by members of the assembly, who accused the rapporteur of personal bias against Azerbaijan and pointed out contradicting information about political prisoners in the country, which included murderers and Islamic extremists, determined to overthrow the Azerbaijani government and enforce Sharia law through violent means.

Agustin Conde from Spain underlined that "a killer can never be considered a political prisoner," before concluding that "we should support human rights, not terrorists or Islamists."

Meanwhile, Thierry Mariani from France highlighted Azerbaijan's geo-political importance - with the country bordering Iran - saying that the Strasser report would send a dangerous message. "We cannot give our support to Islamist regimes," Mariani said, adding, "Azerbaijan is a target here and the report is trying to stigmatise the country."

The Strasser report, which has been five years in the making, has been mired in controversy for a while, ranging from the persistent ambiguities over the definition of the term "political prisoners" to the objectivity of Strasser himself, who had never been to Azerbaijan and publicly announced that the report would be negative.

Robert Walter of the United Kingdom noted that Strasser's list of political prisoners did not correspond with the figures of Amnesty International or the findings by the OSCE, while Terry Leyden from Ireland went a step further, calling the Strasser Report "totally inaccurate."

Mike Hancock from the UK also bemoaned "a lot of confusion about the findings of Mr. Strasser." "A member state is targeted," he said. "This approach can't be fair, can't be right and shouldn't be tolerated in this assembly." Instead he praised the Monitoring Report as "hard-hitting", which "spares no punch."

Theodora Bakoyannis of Greece gave perhaps the most moving speech, reflecting on her political imprisonment at the age of 14 under Greek dictatorship, when her father was also incarcerated. Terrorists later killed her husband.

"Be very careful, Mr. Strasser," she warned. "I know Azerbaijan. It is a country where women can walk around freely, where there is religious freedom. But the neighbours of Azerbaijan would like Azerbaijan to be like them."

Many MPs pointed out that there is still a lot of work to do in Azerbaijan, where not all principles of democracy have been implemented. But, according to Terry Leyden, "we should keep in mind that as a former Soviet republic, Azerbaijan has come a long way, and we should give them credit to what they have achieved so far."

SOURCE Azerbaijan Monitor