mercredi 28 mai 2008

The Uncertain Exile of Azer Samedov

Article published in 07/11/2006 Issue
By Nicolas LANDRU in Tbilisi, translated by Kathryn GAYLORD-MILES and Christian LARSON

© Nicolas Landru - Tbilisi mosque

Formerly a major figure in the defense of religious liberties in Azerbaijan, Azer Ramizoglu Samedov is now prisoner of an uncertain exile in Tbilisi. Pursued in his country by the Aliyev regime, he was arrested by Georgian authorities on March 31 to be extradited to Azerbaijan, where he could receive seven years in prison. Aided by human rights militants and by coverage of the affair in the Georgian press, he was granted parole on April 14. Since then, Azer Samedov has been isolated, without the right to asylum or a passport, and in fear of being secretly extradited. His trial opens October 31, and it could be that his current situation is prolonged.

Mr. Samedov was pursued by the public prosecutor’s office in Baku the day after the presidential elections of October 15, 2003, largely falsified by those in power. He was directing a group of election observers there. The day after the elections, the opposition held demonstrations and was confronted with a violent crack-down, which Mr. Samedov observed. He was officially accused of “participation in mass public disorder,” which crowned an escalation of problems with the authorities. The problems resulted from the support of his NGO, the Centre for the Protection of Freedom of Conscience and Religion (DEVAMM), for the opposition candidate, Isa Gambar. Other members of the organization have been detained, and the religious society that M. Samedov directs, Islam-Ittihad, has been closed down due to accusations of Islamic extremism.

In 2005, Mr. Samedov relocated to Tbilisi, the capital of neighboring Georgia, which has an important Azerbaijani community. There, he opened a branch of DEVAMM called the Caucasian Center, which organizes courses and monitoring in matters of human rights and religious liberties.

A Fragile Balance between Baku and Tbilisi

On March 31, 2006, Samedov was arrested by Georgian security forces on the street in Tbilisi and then imprisoned—illegally, according to Emil Adelkhanov, a fervent human rights activist in Georgia and Mr. Samedov’s defense attorney. The Georgian Minister of the Interior intends to extradite him. The prosecutor’s order mentions that Azerbaijani authorities are within their rights to decide his case in Azerbaijan; that his expulsion does not represent any danger for him because his formerly imprisoned collaborators have been paroled and that they are permitted to visit him in Tbilisi; and that Georgian authorities are certain that he chose Georgia not as asylum, but as a parade ground for carrying on disruptive political activities in Azerbaijan.

Tbilisi could have responded to the arrest warrant sent by Baku. However, according to certain analysts, Tbilisi could have called on Baku to rid itself of a burdensome guest who could form a center of Azerbaijani dissidence in Tbilisi and who could destabilize the political loyalty of the Azerbaijani community in Georgia. Herein lies the fragility of the Azerbaijani-Georgian balance.

Baku has two buttons it can press with its neighbor. On the one hand, its natural resources and gas and oil pipelines are Tbilisi’s only alternative to Moscow. On the other hand, the Azerbaijani community in Georgia, about 300,000 strong, is largely loyal to Azerbaijani authorities. But, if bilateral relations were to deteriorate, the community might abandon its passive loyalty. It is therefore in the interest of Tbilisi on the one hand to meet the expectations of Baku, and on the other hand to avoid all contentious issues such as the creation in Georgia of dissidence to the Aliyev regime, for example.

But Tbilisi has other obligations. The Georgia of the Rose Revolution introduced on the international scene the image of a model post-Soviet democracy, defender of liberties and human rights. With concern to Samedov, Georgia ratified the Convention against Torture, whereas these practices have often been denounced in Azerbaijan. And yet, among the 600-odd people apprehended following the presidential election of 2003, more than one has affirmed having been tortured. However, Georgia’s ratification of the Convention against Torture flies in the face of the April 2002 agreement on the fight against terrorism signed between Tbilisi and Baku.

This dilemma could well be the cause of Mr. Samedov’s parole. Human rights organizations, including International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have gone into action. The Georgian daily newspaper Rezonansi has also brought attention the Samedov case. Caught between a rock and a hard place, between their regional obligations and their international image, Georgian authorities have made concessions, which constitute a relative success for human rights in the country.

Under Pressure

All the same, Mr. Samedov has been plunged into an intolerable situation. He has not obtained the guarantee of any legal status and he lives in fear of an upcoming extradition. Once the media attention waned, Tbilisian society was quickly alienated from him. After his 15 days in prison, his NGO’s computers and funds were confiscated, then misappropriated.

His relatives in Azerbaijan, under careful surveillance by the regime, have distanced themselves from him. Similarly, the Azerbaijani community in Tbilisi has avoided becoming too close to him, not wishing to shatter its fragile balance between the two powers. Georgian NGOs are no longer as attentive to his case. For Emil Adelkhanov, “they and he do not speak the same language. The NGOs in Tbilisi are interested neither in Azerbaijani problems nor one Azerbaijani’s take on Georgian problems.

”Western diplomatic efforts in Georgia are in turn steering clear of all involvement. The steps taken during the summer to attract the attention of embassies or the OSCE have brought declarations of powerlessness or fresh stalling. Some have stated a readiness to do something only if they receive a request from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which is late in getting involved.

Frequently under surveillance, the religious liberties defender has been submitted to a constant pressure as a result of his release on parole. In daily fear of being illegally extradited to the Azerbaijani border, he has awaited his trial in near-isolation. Emil Adelkhanov is one of the few people who has not withdrawn his support.

A Precedent

Azer Samedov is, at least publicly, the first Azerbaijani dissident to have chosen Tbilisi as a place of exile. His arrest, the threat of extradition, and the intervention of human rights organizations in his case all constitute a precedent.

If the media attention waned after his arrest, surveillance of him has also been reduced in recent weeks. Georgia has other priorities, and if the human rights activists manage to maintain pressure on the regime, it is quite possible that the trial will be prolonged.

“I don’t see any possibility of improvement in Azerbaijan at the moment,” confides Mr. Samedov. “The situation is terrible.” According to him, “What Georgia represents in terms of democracy and civil society is extremely precious for the Caucasus as a whole. The path that Georgia takes in the future will be decisive for entire region.”

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