BAKU. November 1, 2011: The National and International Research Center (NIRC) and the International Alliance for Civil Participation (CIVICUS) organized a conference on "the role of freedom of assembly in the context of civic engagement, political pluralism and European integration." The civic and political leaders of Azerbaijan the representatives of the OSCE, Council of Europe, guests from abroad participating in the activity rang the alarm bells on the situation with democratic freedoms in Azerbaijan, including the freedom of assembly. Many participants of the conference made a point that the deterioration of the political freedoms in Azerbaijan was developing in an environment where the international organizations’ passive approach encouraged the regime in Azerbaijan.
Opening the meeting, Leyla Aliyeva, chairperson of NIRC, commented on the deteriorating situation with human rights, and in particular, the arrest of participants in peaceful demonstrations, the pressure on lawyers, the violation of property rights of citizens, including human rights defenders.
The Head of the Council of Europe’s representation in Baku, Constantine Erokostopoulos, noted that despite the notification system in Azerbaijan, the organizers of rallies and other actions faceed the problems and risk being detained, arrested and fined. According to Erokostopoulos, events in Baku in March-April showed that Azerbaijan did not fully comply with its obligations in front of the Council of Europe on the freedom of assembly, undertaken 10 years ago.
John McGregor, deputy head of the OSCE Office in Baku, reported on the international standards on freedom of assembly, which guarantee everyone the right to participate in peaceful assemblies. Restrictions on freedom of assembly must be proportionate and not violate the fundamental right to hold peaceful demonstrations. McGregor said the restrictions must be justified and submitted to the organizers in advance so that they had the opportunity to appeal those denials in court. In addition, the state must ensure the safety of rally participants.
Alexandra Delemenchuk from the Ukrainian Center of Civil Freedom, talked about the experience of achieving freedom of assembly in six post-Soviet countries, including the "Eastern Partnership" countries. She described the situation there as "one step forward, two steps back." These countries, which join the new international initiatives at the same time, have tightened their legislation. The Ukrainian civic activisit talked about the possible ways for preventing restrictions on freedom of assembly. In her view, the rallies should be held jointly with representatives of various sectors of civil society, expressing different interests. Another way was to initiate a mass litigation of appeals to the European Court for the violation of the rights and freedoms of citizens. Alexandra Delemenchuk also talked about the positive experiences of the civil society in Belarus and Armenia, which created the so-called Foundations of Stability. These funds are financed by the European Commission and the US non-profit organization the National Endowment for Democracy. These funds are used to support the families of those arrested at demonstrations, medical assistance to victims, etc.
The leader of the "Musavat" party Isa Gambar noted the necessity of such kind assistance by international organizations to Azerbaijan, expecially in the light of the fact that recently, the Azerbaijani courts produced 20 more political prisoners in the country. Isa Gambar also criticized the EU, OSCE and other structures in continuing to fund ineffective projects on "democratic enlightenment."
Lawyer Annagi Hajibeyli, asked the representatives of OSCE, the Council of Europe and EU
what concrete steps should be taken to influence the official Baku? In their responses, the representatives of OSCE and Council of Europe have complained that they should only identify the problems and urge the authorities to solve them.
The representative of the Council of Europe pointed to the complexity of such efforts, since the proposed decisions of the organization were often blocked by groups of states, supporting each other. In his view, such solutions are possible in special extreme cases.
The leader of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (PFPA) Ali Karimli countered the latter point posing a question: What else should happen in Azerbaijan to recognize an extreme situation, when one of two dictatorships in Europe functions in Azerbaijan (the other one is in Belarus)? The authorities do not even give a visa to PACE Rapporteur on political prisoners, Christoph Strasser," he said.
Participants of discussions drew attention to the statement about the attempts of the authorities to bribe Strasser through former deputy of the PACE and the Bundestag.
Erokostopoulos did not comment on this information, but expressed the hope that Strasser would in the end get his visa and be able to visit Azerbaijan.
Head of the Legal Enlightenment Society, Intigam Aliev, drew attention to the shortcomings in the law itself. In particular, he proposed to delete from the law the provisions prohibiting demonstrations on the days of important public events of international importance. Intigam Aliyev says the Azebaijani government can argue that such an event of “international importance” was taking place in Azerbaijan almost every day throughout any year. Intigam Aliyev also criticized the international organizations for their compromises with the Azerbaijani government. "A member of the OSCE told us "to be happy that the situation in our country is not like in Nigeria, where there are no NGOs. She accused us of "not being constructive." Such a “content” behavior of international organizations has emboldened the Azerbaijani government to start shutting down the international organizations in the country.
Asabali Mustafayev, the head of the Sumgayit Centee for Democracy and Human Rights, focused on the political nature of the arrests of activists in the rallies in March and April, the harshness of the imposed sentences and the refusal of the Azerbaijani courts to use alternative punishment avenues for minor administrative offenses (Turan).