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angle-left null The prisoners of Gobustan
16 September 2019

The prisoners of Gobustan

Azerbaijan – 2001

Catherine HUGEL

Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe on 25 January 2001. Among the commitments taken in the context of this accession, one of the most important was “to release or to grant a new trial to those prisoners who are regarded as ‘political prisoners’ by human rights protection organisations”. The Secretary General, the Committee of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly worked together with the authorities of the country to deal with this delicate issue, both politically and legally.

May 2001. Azerbaijan is an oil-rich Caucasian Republic, bordered by the Caspian Sea, the Russian Federation, Georgia, Armenia, Turkey and Iran. We are on the road to the infamous high security prison of Gobustan, about 40 kilometres from Baku. Detainees sentenced to life imprisonment and other prisoners subject to long prison sentences are incarcerated there. The detainees we are going to visit are alleged political prisoners. They appear on a long list of 716 names provided by non-governmental organisations. If experts establish that they are political prisoners, Azerbaijan will have to release them or retry them as it has formally committed to do.This was one of the conditions of Azerbaijan’s accession to the Council of Europe in 2001: release or retrial. It was still necessary to establish which prisoners were concerned. Our mission is to help Azerbaijan meet its commitment. If all goes well, all parties will emerge as “winners”. However, the task is daunting. The subject is of extreme political sensitivity. Most of my colleagues think that this is an impossible task. We are on dangerous ground.

The minibus brings us closer to the prison. The three independent experts in charge of this task are sitting in front of me. They are leading figures: Stefan Trechsel, professor of criminal law and procedure, and former President of the European Commission of Human Rights; Evert Alkema, professor of law and former extraordinary councillor to the Dutch Council of State; and Alexander Arabadjiev, former judge at the Constitutional Court of Bulgaria and former member of the European Commission of Human Rights. I am very proud to be part of the small team that assists them, under the leadership of Andrew Drzemczewski, a leading human rights expert, sitting next to me. Stefan, usually rather talkative, remains silent. I dare not interrupt this heavy silence, let alone joke. The tension is palpable.

I think back to the countless hours of work that preceded this mission to Baku: first to establish the objective criteria to identify political prisoners, and then to gather and analyse the information necessary for each case. We have immersed ourselves body and soul in their files.
Given the large number of names submitted by the non-governmental organisations and the difficulties encountered in obtaining the required information, the experts were initially forced to focus their attention on a limited number of cases. They first chose three emblematic cases – Iskander Gamidov, Alikram Gumbatov and Raqim Gaziyev – and 20 other “pilot cases”, typical cases linked to specific historical facts. The experts’ conclusions should apply, by analogy, to all similar cases. The examination of their files was an opportunity to delve into Azerbaijan’s tumultuous and largely ignored history in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the proclamation of its independence in 1991.

These years were marked by the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh and attempted coups d’état in Azerbaijan. These events are at the heart of the prisoners’ cases because they have led to the arrest of a considerable number of people. About 10 ministers and their entourage (guards, relatives, drivers, and so on.) were imprisoned from 1993 onwards. Four of them are still in prison at the time of our work. They are accused of high treason, coups d’état, the military “debacle” of Karabakh, or the misappropriation of public property. Iskander Gamidov, for example, was Minister of the Interior, Member of Parliament and leader of the National Democratic Party. He was arrested in 1995 and sentenced to 14 years in prison. Alikram Gumbatov, a member of the Talysh minority, was an army colonel and Vice-Minister of Defence. He was sentenced to death for treason and usurpation of power by proclaiming a “Talysh-Mugan Autonomous Republic”. He was considered by many Azeris to be a dangerous separatist. His sentence was then commuted to life imprisonment. Two of his brothers and their wives were also arrested. His wife fled Azerbaijan. Raqim Gaziyev was Minister of Defence. In his judgment, he is presented as one of the main organisers 
of the attempt by the generals to carry out a “coup d’état” in 1995. He is first sentenced to death and then his sentence is commuted.

Many of these prisoners are not saints: some were arrested because they had links to the Special Police Regiment in Baku, called OPON; others were linked to alleged separatist or coup leaders of those tumultuous years; others were colonial lieutenants of Security (“SSC” or “KGB” in Russian) of the Soviet era. Finally, some were tried for murder and violent acts of common law.

In most cases, the search for reliable and documented information about each person is difficult. The list is full of homonyms. Fact-finding alone is very complicated. We do not have all the relevant judgments and extracts from the Criminal Code. So, it is obvious that we must go to Azerbaijan to obtain more information, discuss with the authorities and, of course, meet a number of prisoners, their lawyers and non-governmental organisations.

If you wish to continue your reading, you may buy the book "Europe: a human enterprise".

Catherine HUGEL
Born in Franche-Comté, Catherine studied international relations and law in Strasbourg and Dublin before going on to do research in St Petersburg, Riga and Tallinn. In 1996 she joined the Council of Europe, where she worked in the secretariat of the Parliamentary Assembly (Political Affairs Committee, Monitoring Committee, Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights) and then the Monitoring Department of the Directorate of Strategic Planning. She is currently Head of Division at the Directorate of External Relations.