Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 4

On December 29, Azerbaijani President Haidar Aliev signed an amnesty decree covering eighty-seven convicted detainees, including some classified by various internal groups and international organizations as “political prisoners.” Other “political prisoners” are not included in the amnesty decree, however. Disagreement has long raged as to who is to be classified a political prisoner, and more broadly as to the criteria for such classification in Azerbaijan.

Four different Azerbaijani human rights groups have submitted separate lists of “political prisoners.” These differ greatly with regard to numbers and to the names included. The differences stem from mutually inconsistent criteria, friction among the human rights groups and their different political orientations.

Among the eighty-seven amnestied by the president, thirty-nine were members of the OPON (Special Purpose Police Detachments) who had participated in the March 1995 abortive coup d’etat, staged by that force. The army beat back that coup, and the president dissolved the OPON, a small but vociferous remnant of which has since found a haven in Iran. Another ten amnestied detainees had been involved in the October 1994 assassination attempt against Aliev, which a pro-Moscow group staged. Another five had been convicted for creating separatist armed groups in southeastern Azerbaijan and in Nakhichevan in 1993-94. In all, fifty-seven of the eighty-seven amnestied prisoners had been convicted for crimes against the state, its independence or its territorial integrity. All those crimes and convictions date from the turmoil of the early and mid-1990s, which Aliev succeeded in ending by 1995 and thereafter.

Three major former political figures serving long-term sentences are not covered by the amnesty, and form a subject of internal and international controversy. They are: former Defense Minister Rahim Gaziev, former Internal Affairs Minister Iskander Hamidov–members, both, of the 1992-93 government of the Popular Front–and the former army officer Alikram Humbatov, leader of the would-be “Talysh-Mugan republic,” a separatist project in southeastern Azerbaijan in the early 1990s. Azerbaijani opposition parties, internal and international human rights groups, and most importantly the Council of Europe are actively involved in these cases. The international organizations variously insist that Gaziev, Hamidov and Humbatov be amnestied, pardoned, or at least retried.

Gaziev and Hamidov were sentenced and convicted for their role in the violent turmoil of their period in government and thereafter. Gaziev had managed in 1994 to escape from an Azerbaijani prison to Russia, together with a group of pro-Moscow former officials, and thanks to a residual network of Russian agents still active at the time in Azerbaijan. Hamidov had earlier founded in Azerbaijan the Grey Wolves organization, an offshoot of the eponymous paramilitary organization in Turkey. The Turkish Grey Wolves had been suppressed by that country’s government, but enjoyed a brief lease on life in Azerbaijan under Abulfaz Elchibey’s Popular Front government. Hamidov was also a bete noire of Russia in the early and mid-1990s, mainly for attempting to channel assistance to Chechen forces in the early stages of the hostilities there. It would be interesting to watch Moscow’s reaction if Aliev yields to the Council of Europe and amnesties Hamidov (ANS, Turan, Yeni Musavat, December 28-29, 31, January 4-5).