The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg is in principle rightly blind to external political considerations. But occasionally good timing (whether deliberate or unintentional) may serve to reinforce its efforts to defend the principles and values of the European Convention of Human Rights. For example, in the run-up to parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan on November 1 the court issued a group of judgments that highlighted the continuing erosion of basic political rights in that country, under its increasingly authoritarian president, Ilham Aliyev, now in his 12th year of office.
Two of the rulings were directly linked to the conduct of the last parliamentary elections in 2010. The applicants in Gahramanli and Others v. Azerbaijan, decided on October 8, were opposition candidates who had complained to the court of electoral abuses that included obstruction of election observers and ballot-box stuffing. In Annagi Hajibeyli v. Azerbaijan, decided on October 22, the applicant sought to register as an opposition candidate but was rejected because the electoral commission rejected over a third of the signatures he needed to get on the ballot.
In both cases, the court found that the right to free elections had been violated by government action, while the Gahramanli ruling concluded that “the conduct of the electoral commissions and courts—including the Constitutional Court ‒ in the present case, and their respective decisions, reveal an apparent lack of any genuine concern for combatting the alleged instances of electoral fraud and protecting the applicants’ right to stand for election.”
In a third case, Gafgaz Mammadov v. Azerbaijan, the court found on October 15 that the authorities “failed to act with due tolerance and good faith as regards the applicant’s right to freedom of assembly” in moving to break up an opposition demonstration held in June 2011.
Since the events detailed in these complaints, the political situation in Azerbaijan has only worsened. A wave of arrests last year saw the detention of several prominent human rights defenders and journalists over the course of just a few weeks.
Those arrested included Hajibeyli’s lawyer, Intigam Aliyev, who was sentenced to seven and a half years’ imprisonment on bogus charges (Aliyev is in poor health and has himself complained to the ECHR over the inadequate medical care and harsh conditions he is experiencing in detention). This August, human rights activists Leyla and Arif Yunus were given sentences of eight and a half years and seven years respectively (Arif was released on health grounds on November 12). In September, investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison. Many more civil society activists have been harassed and imprisoned, while their organizations have faced closure by the authorities over trumped up technicalities.
Against this background, the latest ECHR rulings join a long list of judgments highlighting serious rights abuses in Azerbaijan. Taken together, they represent a fundamental challenge to the principles and values of the European Convention of Human Rights, which the government in Baku ratified when it joined the 47-member Council of Europe (CoE) in 2001.
Regrettably, the response of the Council of Europe so far has been inadequate. The Council’s human rights commissioner, Nils Muiznieks, has been forthright; at the end of October he denounced the parliamentary elections held on Sunday November 1 as “another fraudulent election in a land with few rights,” and called for the release of imprisoned human rights defenders. But at the same time the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE, which brings together parliamentarians from the CoE member states), went ahead with a plan to send a delegation to monitor the vote; this was despite the decision of both the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe and the European Parliament not to send monitors, due to the restrictive conditions being imposed on their work.
Despite the evident suppression of opposition views over the previous months, and despite observing some incidents of ballot box stuffing, the PACE monitoring team concluded that the “voting process was observed to be adequate and generally in line with international standards.”
After this contradictory performance, it is incumbent on the CoE’s secretary general, Thorbjørn Jagland, to make sure that the council sends a consistent message on Azerbaijan.
At the very least Jagland might seek to ensure a coordinated response, by bringing together PACE, the human rights commissioner, and the Council of Ministers in a working group on Azerbaijan. Ultimately, he has the power to invoke, Article 52 of the European Convention gives the secretary general the authority to, in effect, demand an official response from Baku over its broad breaches of rights.
The CoE’s message, grounded in the European Convention and the decisions of the ECHR, should be simple, as spelt out already by its human rights commissioner: “The only chance Azerbaijan has to reverse its growing international isolation and show its commitment to democratic values is to free and clean the criminal records of all human rights defenders, journalists, and others imprisoned for their work or for opposing the establishment.”