STRASBOURG, France – During a debate today at its plenary session in Strasbourg on “The functioning of democratic institutions in Azerbaijan,” the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) raised a number of concerns, particularly with regard to checks and balances, the functioning of the justice system, and freedom of expression and association in Azerbaijan.
“Recent constitutional changes could make the executive less accountable to parliament,” warned PACE in a resolution adopted on the basis of a report by Stefan Schennach (Austria, SOC) and Cezar Florin Preda (Romania, EPP/CD), emphasizing the need to develop the oversight function of the parliament over the executive.
The Assembly also considered that the justice system in Azerbaijan must be “genuinely independent, impartial and free from interference by the executive.” It welcomed the President of the Republic’s Executive Order on improving the operation of the prison system and humanization of criminal policies and called on the authorities to implement it rapidly.
PACE also expressed its concern about “reports linking the Azerbaijani Government to a large-scale money laundering scheme occurring in the years 2012 to 2014, used inter alia to influence the work of members of the Assembly as regards the human rights situation in Azerbaijan,” and urged the Azerbaijani authorities to start an independent and impartial inquiry into these allegations without delay.
While welcoming the release in 2016 and 2017 of some so-called “political prisoners”/“prisoners of conscience,” PACE is concerned about the reported prosecution and ongoing detention of human rights defenders, political activists, journalists and bloggers, and the “arbitrary application of criminal legislation to limit freedom of expression.” It called on the authorities to “use all possible means to release those prisoners whose detention gives rise to justified doubts.”
The adopted resolution calls on the Azerbaijani authorities to promptly ensure the full implementation of the decisions of the ECHR, to strengthen parliamentary control over the executive, to continue the reforms of the judiciary and the prosecution service so as to ensure full independence of the judiciary, to put an end to systemic repression of human rights defenders, the media and those critical of the government, including politically motivated prosecutions, and to create an environment conducive to NGO and media activities.
PACE also unanimously adopted a heavily revised Code of Conduct for its members, with the aim of “restoring public confidence” in its work. This revised code came as a response to allegations of corruption in its ranks.
Approving a report by Ian Liddell-Grainger (United Kingdom, EC), the Assembly said recent allegations of corruption risked causing “lasting damage” to its reputation and that a “sound and coherent integrity framework” was needed to prevent future corrupt behavior.
The new rules provide for swift and fair investigations into alleged ethical breaches by members – including those revealed by outside sources – and stronger sanctions when wrongdoing takes place.
Members must now pledge not to “promise, give, request or accept” any fee, compensation or reward in the course of their duties, and must declare any interests at the opening of each session. To increase transparency, these declarations must now be posted online. There are also provisions to ensure that rapporteurs and election of observers declare any conflicts of interest.
The new framework – inspired by recommendations from the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption body GRECO – also foresees tighter restrictions on lobbyists, including the creation of a “transparency register”, and steps to ensure former members who engage in paid consultancy do not benefit from any special privileges.
PACE has already set up an independent, external investigation body to look into allegations of “corruption and fostering of interests” made against some of its members and former members, which is expected to report by the end of 2017.
Meanwhile, Armenia’s Deputy Parliament Speaker and Head of the Armenian delegation to PACE Arpine Hovhannisyan gave a speech on behalf of EPP Group and saluted the initiative to organize the 4th congress of the Heads of State of the Council of Europe member states.
Hovhannisyan noted that the terrorist attacks, the rise in Euro-separatism, nationalism, populism, xenophobia, the existence of open and frozen conflicts, and the blockade of neighbors all threaten Europe’s unity.
“Apart from those external threats, unfortunately, we also encounter internal challenges. I believe that in a situation when terror acts become a usual thing, when we are surrounded by the atmosphere of hatred and intolerance and we cannot allow internal confrontations inside our Assembly,” said Hovhannisyan according to Armenpress adding that “we should remind ourselves of our fundamental values,” and reasons and goals of the establishment of the organization.
“The 4th congress can become a good platform for reminding all of us that we, becoming member of this highly reputable institution, have assumed responsibilities and those responsibilities must remain unchanged,” Hovhannisyan said, noting that cooperation with the EU is an important precondition for success.
Hovhannisyan also explained that during the previous congress in 2005, most speakers discussed how Europe was living in one of its best periods of history since it was safe and close to being united. She then questioned if this was something that could be said about today’s Europe.
“For that goal, we have to consolidate around our values – human rights, parliamentary democracy and rule of law. The congress will give an opportunity to look back to our achievements and triumphs and outline our next steps,” Hovhannisyan concluded.