Some analysts believe a recent pardon by President Ilham Aliyev, setting free opposition activists who were imprisoned in connection with post-election rioting in 2003, was an attempt to show the international community that the Azerbaijani government is interested in reform. The move came amid signs that Azerbaijan's fractured opposition is coming together as preparations for the country's parliamentary election campaign get underway. Some opposition members are already expressing a desire to bring about a "democratic revolution" in Azerbaijan, emulating the experiences of Georgia and Ukraine.
Aliyev's decree on March 20 -- issued to commemorate the Azerbaijani spring holiday Novruz -- freed 115 prisoners, including the so-called "group of seven" opposition leaders: Rauf Arifoglu, editor-in-chief of the Yeni Musavat newspaper; Arif Hajily, deputy chairman of the Musavat Party; Panah Huseynov, leader of the People's Party; Sardar Jalaloglu, General-Secretary of the Democratic Party; Igbal Agazade, leader of the Umid Party; Ibrahim Ibrahimli, deputy chairman of the Musavat Party, and Etimad Asadov, leader of the Karabakh War Invalids Society. Former defense minister Ragim Gaziyev, former Ganja police department chief Natig Efendiyev, and the former head of the special presidential department, were pardoned as well.
The Aliyev government has long been dogged by international criticism over Baku's use of the judicial system to persecute political opponents. In February, for example, a report prepared by the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) called on the Azerbaijani government to release opposition political activists jailed following October 2003 protests that were sparked by accusations of electoral irregularities. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The ODIHR report said the trials conducted for opposition activists did not meet OSCE standards for protection of human rights and recognition of the rule of law.
The United States, the European Union and the Council of Europe have endorsed the ODIHR report. Malcolm Bruce, rapporteur for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), went even further. "The Council of Europe is not going to close its eyes to the political prisoners' problem any more," he said at a March 17 press conference in Baku. Bruce stated that the future of relations between Azerbaijan and PACE would depend on how the government decided to handle the prisoners' situation. If the problem remained unsolved, he indicated, Azerbaijan could face the possibility of sanctions during the upcoming PACE session in April. All 53 people included on the Council of Europe's list of political prisoners a longstanding source of Council criticism of the Aliyev government have been freed.
"The decree has fully resolved the problem of the
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance journalist in Azerbaijan. Farid Arifoglu is a correspondent of Turan news agency in Baku.