Prisoners of Criteria

Ilgar Mammadov - Prisoners of CriteriaBy Ilgar Mammadov
Director of the Baku School of Politics
29 January 2014

I must respond to the remarks made twice in the past seven months in Brussels by Azerbaijan’s absolutist ruler Ilham Aliyev about my situation as a prisoner.

Mr Aliyev was right in justifying his repressive acts by what he called a “fiasco” of his opponents at the 23 January PACE voting. I shall add: a well-predicted fiasco.

Many years ago Baku skillfully transformed the debate about political prisoners into a bureaucratic, that is non-political, discussion about technical criteria for the definition/ Moreover, the discussion it self went in the wrong direction of assessing a prisoner’s situation vis-à-vis law and other individuals, instead of focusing on the big political picture of justice.

Let me explain. In a democracy the government’s appetite for imprisoning its opponents and critics is institutionally limited by: 1) the risk of losing free and fair elections; 2) the risk of losing a focus on its objectives because of negative public opinion and negative free press; 3) the risk of losing international understanding and foreign investment; and finally 4) the risk of losing the case soon in an independent court. In Azerbaijan: 1) none of the nine elections since accession to the Council of Europe has been free and fair; 2) speech and freedom of assembly is systematically repressed; 3) the economy does not have an open investment market due to the overwhelming dominance of extractive industry, extreme monopolization, and worst corruption ranking in Europe – especially because of the 4) executive branch’s firm hand over judiciary. In such circumstances, any criteria assessing mostly the legal position of an individual prisoner within the “legitimate” judicial environment of a solemnly sovereign state are easy to challenge. Precisely that had happened on 23 January 2013 at the PACE.

Criteria should be political in the first place, and only then legalistic. Here are my framework principles based on the aforementioned institutional guardians of opponents and critics of the government:

If at discretionary political opinion of PACE a COE member state:
- Has a continued record of not free and not fair elections according to the most professional election observation organizations;
- Has a media and freedom of assembly situation described as “repressed” by a majority of civil society organizations – long time partners of the COE; and
- Scores badly in reputable international corruption rankings, particularly due to the lack of or poor independence of judiciary, then irrespective of partial, occasional or continued, progress notable in the above areas, the right of the government to imprison its critics and opponents for alleged crimes should effectively be exercized only through dialogue with the political body of the Council of Europe, i.e. the PACE. Ideally and additionally, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in coorperation with PACE should introduce a fst track for seemingly political cases.

Unfortunately, due to the decade-long protraction on the matter, the PACE has fallen a victim of petty caviar and grandiose gas diplomacy of Baku, while the slowness of the ECHR makes it a de facto extension of the national repression machine: Mr.Aliyev simply does not care about ECHR rulings because at their current speed he can cause long enough “legitimate” suffering to his opponents, and even pay a tiny material “compensation” from the state budget after stealing years and health of his democratic rivals.

This is not an invitation to embark in another decade-long debate on the “criteria”. However, if anyone at the PACE wishes so, I am ready: this week my first year in gaol ends, and I become more hardened a prisoner.

Ilgar Mammadov
Political prisoner
Republican Alternative (REAL) Movement