PACE’s failure to recognize Azerbaijani political prisoners creates problems for their counterparts in Ukraine
Countries and people depend on each other more than anyone would like to admit. Here is a fresh example: a failed report on political prisoners in Azerbaijan at the most recent PACE session is likely to also hurt Ukraine. More precisely, it hurts those Ukrainian members of the opposition and their supporters who had hoped that there would at least be a discussion on granting the status of political prisoner to Yulia Tymoshenko and Yuriy Lutsenko at the April session.
The report on political prisoners in Azerbaijan was pivotal for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. In October 2012, PACE was the first international organization in the world to legally define the term political prisoner. It took lawyers three long years to accomplish that. The plan was that a report by German socialist Christoph Strässer would allow the terminology to be put to practical use. And then, once the precedent was established, similar issues would be considered with regard to Ukraine and Russia.
However, this was not to be. “Who could imagine several years ago that the Council of Europe would fail to agree on a resolution on political prisoners?” one permanent employee of the organization wondered aloud as she spoke to The Ukrainian Week. “We must admit that lobbying on the part of Baku and, no doubt, Moscow has proved principles exist which are more powerful to those who support universal justice than fidelity. The question is not how authoritarian regimes cooperate. The question really is: Out of 224 PACE delegates present in the session hall, why were a mere 79 willing to stop political repression in Europe?”
According to information obtained by The Ukrainian Week, representatives of the Azerbaijani authorities personally called delegates from other countries. They also contacted the Ukrainian delegation, at least some of its members. The arguments were of two kinds: first, there were alleged “terrorists and killers” on the proposed list of prisoners, and second, Kyiv needs Azerbaijani oil and gas.
“In fact, the list of potential political prisoners was ironclad,” Emin, an activist in one of the four Azerbaijani NGOs involved in drawing up the list, counters. “Each one of us came up with a list, and then we all met in Berlin: human rights advocates and the office of Christoph Strässer. About 90 per cent of the names were the same. We removed the rest from the list. We collectively put together an ‘ironclad’ dossier on each prisoner. We worked together for several days, comparing information and making it more precise.”
Counting on what they thought was an invincible democratic majority in the Council of Europe, advocates of Azerbaijani prisoners, unlike their opponents, did not actively contact delegates prior to the vote. Perhaps, if they had called, argued and circulated documents, the vote would have involved at least 50 more informed and concerned politicians. But that never happened.
What are the effects of this failed report for Ukraine? There are several. The first, purely procedural, is that if an attempt to recognize and identify by name the Azerbaijani political prisoners failed at the official level, it is hard to imagine a kamikaze who would, after the defeat of rapporteur Christoph Strässer, put his reputation as a successful politician on the line for the sake of Ukrainians.
The procedure of recognizing political prisoners is as follows. Members of the national delegation of a country in which people are imprisoned for political motives must send an official request to the PACE Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights. According to the decision passed last October, the committee reviews the request and, if it finds it valid, appoints a special rapporteur on the country in question. Several missions and meetings follow, all leading to the final report which a PACE session discusses and approves.
The initial plan was to discuss Ukrainian political prisoners in April. This possibility was tentatively mentioned, for example, by Secretary-General of the Council of Europe Thornbjorn Jagland. Yet it is important to note that this meeting took place several hours before the “Azerbaijani” vote. Now Jagland’s office is skeptical that the Ukrainian initiatives stand a chance.
The second consequence of the prisoner vote failure has to do with scheduling. Apart from possible new special reports, the Council of Europe already has several multiyear political investigations involving official Kyiv. One of them is a report being prepared by Dutch Christian Democrat Pieter Omtzigt which concerns the separation of political and criminal responsibility.
“The rapporteur has already been to Iceland where a prime minister was convicted (but not imprisoned. – Ed.) precisely for a political decision,” a source in the PACE Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights has told The Ukrainian Week. “But he hasn’t been able to travel to Ukraine. Mr. Omtzigt has applied multiple times, but Kyiv is in no hurry with dates.” Without coming to Ukraine, he will not be able to complete the report. As time goes by and people are unable to read the final document, the prospects of a discussion on Ukraine in the PACE session hall grow ever more dim.
“If the very term political prisoner became operational, Ukraine would find it psychologically more difficult to continue denying Omtzigt the opportunity to work on its territory,” the PACE Secretariat believes. “However, the Azerbaijanis have not granted rapporteur Christoph Strässer an opportunity to come on a visit, which made it possible to claim that he had not been to the country and did not know what was happening there.” This trick has worked and why would the Ukrainian authorities reject a method that has been proved and tested?
In addition to the report on separating political and criminal responsibility, PACE will hear one on fulfilling Council of Europe resolutions and recommendations by Ukraine, France and Russia. The document is being prepared by German liberal Marieluise Beck. In the case of Ukraine, the report will look at the cases of Georgiy Gongadze and Yuriy Lutsenko. Beck faced no obstacles to working in Ukraine, but Russia has refused to invite her. It is the same old story: the investigation is not complete, and it is anyone’s guess when it will reach the session hall.
Ukraine, Russia and Azerbaijan have managed to quietly sabotage the activities of the Council of Europe aimed at recognizing political prisoners. And it must be admitted that the authorities of each of these three countries have been very good at cooperating together. Will opposition forces in Ukraine, Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and other countries be able to cooperate the same way, at least tactically?
“I am convinced that if the situation fails to improve in Ukraine, Azerbaijan, the Russian Federation and some other Council of Europe members, the Council of Europe will return to the topic of political prisoners,” says Valentyna Telychenko, a lawyer, attorney and specialist in the workings of the European Court of Human Rights. “If opposition leaders are being imprisoned in a country, that means that the country's top leadership is involved in a number of crimes against public justice – holding a patently innocent person criminally liable, coercing into testimony, passing deliberately unlawful court decisions, interfering with the operation of an automated document flow system, etc. In Ukraine, these offences fall under Articles 371-376 of the Criminal Code. It is hard to imagine a scenario under which a prosecutor general or his deputy would allow a case to be opened against himself, or to imagine a judge who fulfilled orders from the top leadership would not complain when he himself is charged. This is when intervention from the outside is needed. This is when the Council of Europe needs to step in.”
A mere 79 PACE delegates voted in favour of the decision to recognize political prisoners in Azerbaijan. These included Ukrainian delegates – Svoboda member Oleksandr Shevchenko and UDAR member Petro Riabykin. But even if all three delegates from Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) had also cast yes votes, it would not have remedied the situation, as 125 delegates were opposed. One of them, Pedro Agramunt, a rapporteur on Azerbaijan, recently seems to be less exacting regarding violations of democratic standards than he was before.
If we imagine for a minute that the issue of Ukrainian political prisoners is put to a vote in Strasbourg, we must realize that the opposition needs to think about forging new effective partnerships, seek common strategies on the level of delegates and tackle the most difficult thing: finding a potential Western terminator rapporteur who would, despite objective circumstances, throw caution to the wind and put his faith in the nearly hopeless Ukrainian case.
At a campaign rally in Iowa, President Donald Trump cited an unsubstantiated news report to revive a widely debunked false narrative about Joe Biden’s work in Ukraine on behalf of the Obama administration