CoE Scrutinizes Rights Violations In Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan

Radio Free Europe, Czech Republic
April 30 2004

Council Of Europe Scrutinizes Rights Violations In Belarus, Political
Situation In Armenia, Azerbaijan

By Jean-Christophe Peuch

Azerbaijani President Aliyev is under pressure over political

The Strasbourg-based Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe
today wraps up the second part of its 2004 spring session. The main
highlights of this week’s session included hearings on human rights
abuses in Belarus, an urgent debate on the political situation in
Armenia, and an address by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.

Prague, 30 April 2004 (RFE/RL) — The 45-member Parliamentary
Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) voted this week to recommend
that the council’s Committee of Ministers considers suspending all
contacts with the Belarusian leadership until an independent
investigation is conducted into the disappearances of journalists and
political opponents.

In a separate resolution, PACE warned that failure to comply would
lead to maintaining sanctions against Belarus, or barring the
country’s parliamentarians from attending the assembly’s sessions
even informally.

The warning came just two weeks after the UN’s Human Rights
Commission censured Belarus over the disappearances and other rights

Belarus had its special guest status in the Council of Europe
suspended in 1997, amid claims that its constitution was falling
short of democratic standards and handing too much power to President
Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Since then, Belarus has been regularly criticized in Strasbourg for
its poor human rights record, including harassment of nongovernmental
media, restrictions of religious freedom, and reports of random

“As a criminal lawyer, I have no doubt that these disappearances were
ordered at the highest possible level in the establishment of
Belarus.”This week’s PACE recommendation and resolution refer to the
disappearance and feared extra-judiciary execution of former Interior
Minister Yury Zakharanka, former parliament speaker Viktar Hanchar,
businessman Anatol Krasouski, and Dmitri Zavadsky, a cameraman for
the Russian private television channel NTV.

All four disappearances, which occurred in 1999 and 2000, are
believed to be politically motivated. Although Belarusian authorities
deny any wrongdoing, they have persistently ignored calls to conduct
independent investigations into the cases.

Greek Cypriot delegate Christos Pourgourides, who authored a report
on Belarus that was debated at the assembly before the 28 April vote,
said the people responsible for these disappearances should be
searched for among the country’s top leadership.

“As a criminal lawyer, I have no doubt that these disappearances were
ordered at the highest possible level in the establishment of
Belarus. I cannot be certain that the order was given by President
[Lukashenka] himself, but I am absolutely certain that the order for
their abduction was given by people very, very close to the
president,” Pourgourides said.

In another resolution adopted this week, the Strasbourg-based
assembly severely criticized Belarus for the “systematic harassment
and intimidations carried out by state officials…against
journalists, editors, and media outlets which are critical of the
president” or the government.

Russia, which is linked to Belarus by a union treaty, expressed its
disagreement over the resolutions and recommendations adopted by the

Talking to journalists after the vote, Konstantin Kosachev, the
chairman of the State Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee, criticized
the documents for being “too emotional.”

Russia itself has been criticized in the past in Strasbourg for human
rights violations in Chechnya.

Although the situation in the breakaway Northern Caucasus republic
was not on the assembly’s agenda this week, it was nonetheless
debated among members of PACE’s Political Affairs Committee.

In comments made to RFE/RL’s North Caucasus Service, PACE’s
rapporteur on Chechnya, Andreas Gross, said he plans to visit the
region in early June with other members of the Political Affairs
Committee. He said he will prepare a report to be debated at the
assembly’s next plenary session later that month.

“Since I was appointed rapporteur last July, I [have never been]
allowed to visit Chechnya, and [there] is no use to make a report
based only on journalists’ [accounts]. You have to go on a
[fact-finding] mission yourself. But now, after one year, I have the
impression that the Russian authorities — and especially the new
Russian delegation [here] — are much more cooperative, and we agreed
on a mission [so that] we could make a report,” Gross said.

Whether Russian authorities will allow the Swiss delegate to meet
Chechen separatist President Aslan Maskhadov — as he says he intends
to — remains unclear, however.

The situation in Armenia, where President Robert Kocharian and his
coalition cabinet are engaged in a bitter standoff with opponents,
was also debated this week in Strasbourg.

Armenia’s parliamentary opposition accuses Kocharian of rigging last
year’s presidential and legislative polls and insists his leadership
should to be put to a vote of national confidence.

The Armenian capital, Yerevan, has witnessed daily opposition rallies
for nearly three weeks now. Tensions bubbled over on 13 April when
police rounded up dozens of opposition activists and raided
opposition party offices.

The crackdown was strongly criticized by Council of Europe
Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer, who regretted the absence of
democratic debate in Armenia.

In a resolution adopted this week, PACE urged the Armenian leadership
to refrain from any actions that could be seen as attempts at
curtailing freedom of expression and movement. It also called for an
investigation into the recent incidents.

While reiterating its “profound disappointment” at last year’s
“flawed” elections, the assembly also urged Kocharian’s opponents to
strive to achieve their goals “within the constitutional framework”
and called upon both sides to enter into a dialogue “without

Armenia was admitted into the Council of Europe in January 2001,
along with its neighbor Azerbaijan.

Although neither country met democracy standards, the
Strasbourg-based body hoped that opening its ranks simultaneously to
the rival nations would help them reach a solution to their
territorial dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Despite a 1994 cease-fire, Yerevan and Baku remain technically at war
over the predominantly ethnic Armenian enclave. For various reasons,
both sides have rejected successive settlement blueprints drafted by
the Minsk Group, the 13-member group of nations mandated by the
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to mediate in the

Addressing the PACE assembly yesterday, Azerbaijani President Ilham
Aliyev reiterated his country’s traditional stance, which consists of
demanding that ethnic Armenian troops withdraw from all Azerbaijani
lands they have been occupying since 1993, prior to any discussion on
the status of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Aliyev succeeded his then ailing father last October following a
controversial presidential election marred by irregularities, street
violence and the subsequent arrest of opposition activists.

During his three-year tenure as his country’s chief PACE delegate,
Aliyev often had to adopt a defensive position amid criticism of
Baku’s poor human rights record. Yesterday, however, his first
address to the assembly as Azerbaijani president was delivered in a
much more cordial atmosphere.

Aliyev hinted that he might release all inmates that the Council of
Europe insists are political prisoners. However, when asked whether
he thought he could do so before PACE’s September session, the
Azerbaijani leader remained noncommittal.

“When I was elected, in my first speech after my inauguration, I said
I would be the president of all Azerbaijanis — and that is what I am
doing. The policy of putting an end to the dramatic history of the
past will continue, but it is very difficult to do that alone. All
political forces must take an active part in doing that. The steps
that I have taken in pardoning prisoners show that intention and that
policy, and I think that that policy will continue,” Aliyev said.

Last month, Aliyev signed a decree amnestying nearly 130 prisoners,
including Suret Huseynov, a former prime minister who had been
sentenced to life imprisonment in 1999 on charges of plotting against
the state.

Huseynov’s release brought down to five the number of political
prisoners that the Council of Europe wants Azerbaijan to release in
the coming months.

In the meantime, an estimated 100 opposition activists detained last
October have been charged over their alleged participation in
postelection violence. Some of them have already been convicted,
while others are still awaiting trial.

Aliyev yesterday justified the crackdown on the opposition,
describing it as protection against the “hostility” that he says
continues to exist in Azerbaijani society.