Council of Europe Calls for Release of Azeri Political Prisoners

BAKU (AFP)–Europe’s top human rights body warned Azerbaijan Wednesday that it would reevaluate its relations with Baku unless authorities released hundreds of "political prisoners."

Council of Europe envoy Malcolm Bruce said he expected President Ilham Aliyev to sign an amnesty and "we expect that such a decree should free the larger part of the political prisoners and this will be a resolution of the issue in Azerbaijan."

"I conveyed to the president (Ilham Aliyev) the opinion of international observers that the trials of opposition leaders were biased," Bruce said during a three-day visit to the Caucasus nation.

"The president did not admit to this problem," he said.

If the prisoners were not released–Baku would face the possibility of "a reevaluation of Azerbaijan and the Council of Europe’s relations," at the council’s April session–the Turan news agency reported Bruce as saying.

Hundreds of people opposed to Azerbaijan’s ruling regime were arrested following riots during presidential elections in October 2003–including seven of Azerbaijan’s most vocal opposition leaders.

Many have been released but the seven so-called "October detainees," were handed sentences of two to five years last year and remain in prison as do scores of others.

Amnesty International slammed their imprisonment when the seven were given sentences–saying there were concerns that witnesses were pressured into giving evidence that would incriminate the defendants and that allegations of ill-treatment and torture of the prisoners were not fully investigated.

Bruce said he expected Aliyev to sign an amnesty freeing most of the political prisoners interned in the oil-rich Caspian nation in the next two to three weeks–he told journalists.

They agreed that "the internment of some of the opposition leaders in prison during parliamentary elections (in November) would be an undesirable phenomenon," Azer Press quoted Bruce as saying.

Tensions between the opposition and the authorities have been heating up ahead of the November poll with police breaking up every protest the opposition has organized since the 2003 elections.

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