In May, PACE, for the first time in the organization's history, employed the internal mechanism of individual sanctions against its members. The Committee decided that sanctions should apply to Pedro Agramunt (Spain) for ten years, and Cezar Florin Preda (Romania), Samad Seyidov (Azerbaijan), and Jordi Xuclà (Spain) for two years. During the given periods, they will be barred from running for the PACE presidency, representing the organization with third parties, or participating in election observation missions.
The first question that arises is why these sanctions were imposed? Are they merely a rebuke against some random members? For those who have not been following the processes underway for the last five years in the Council of Europe, this may appear to be internal regulatory penalties against problematic members. In truth, however, the issue is broader than it seems and some research in the recent history is needed to understand the essence of it.
On January 24th, 2013, a report on political prisoners in Azerbaijan prepared by German MP Christoph Strasser did not pass a vote at the plenary session of PACE. There were 79 votes for the document, 125 votes against, and 20 abstentions. This vote, when viewed in conjunction with the Azerbaijani delegation members celebrating the result of the voting and hugging each other afterward in the session hall, might have seemed reasonable back then.
But it was the first time that MPs had voted to grant a mandate to a rapporteur and then later found his report to be unnecessary. The plenary session refused to accept the committee-approved document. Although Agramunt, then a co-rapporteur of the Monitoring Committee on Azerbaijan, had spoken previously on negative cases in the prepared report, during the session he openly called for voting against the report on political prisoners.
It should also be recalled that despite his appointment as a PACE rapporteur on political prisoners in Azerbaijan, Strasser was not even allowed to enter the country. On top of that, he and human rights activists who helped him to prepare the report were subjected to a smear campaign by government media outlets.
These developments led to some doubts; both local and foreign civil societies agreed that there is a need for a broad investigation of these occurrences. As a result, a report reflecting severe doubts on political corruption within the PACE and entitled "Caviar Diplomacy" was prepared by the organization located in Berlin and called the European Stability Initiative. The report and processes evolving around it were widely covered, especially by the European media.
"Caviar Diplomacy" would probably have been forgotten and ended by now with no results whatsoever. However, the Milan prosecutor's office's criminal case against Italian MP Luca Volonte - a former vice-president of the largest political group at PACE (European People's Party) - had accelerated the process. Prosecutors accused Volonte of obtaining a bribe from Azerbaijan for 2.39 million EUR between 2012-2014. Subpoenaed e-mail correspondence between Volonte and Elkhan Suleymanov, a former member of the Azerbaijani delegation, whose name also appears in the corruption allegations, supported the investigation's claims that the disapproval of the report on political prisoners of January 2013 did not happen by chance, but rather by acquiring political influence through money or other means.
Volonte's name was not the only one mentioned in "Caviar Diplomacy" report. Serious accusations were also put forward against Agramunt, Xuclà, Muslim Mammadov, Elkhan Suleymanov, Karin Strenz (German), Tadeusz Iwinsky (Poland), and others. After Agramunt and Xucla were transported to a meeting with Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad on board a Russian military plane, and they did that without confirmation of the Spanish parliament or the Council. Furthermore, they participated in an event on the peaceful constitutional transition in the country, which is in the middle of the civil war; therefore, it is clear that PACE had to take urgent steps.
As a result, an independent, non-partisan investigative body was established by the Council to investigate corruption charges. Two former European Court judges and one more expert were invited to form this body. In April of this year, the body presented a far-reaching report on the investigation’s conclusions about of corruption over the last five years. This report, on which they worked for about a year, has substantiated all the allegations that had been put forward after the failed approval of the political prisoners' report.
It turned out that, during their visit to Azerbaijan, PACE members were offered not only valuable gifts but also sex services. These allegations were not denied by Agramunt or Azerbaijani officials. Moreover, Siyavush Novruzov, an assistant to Azerbaijani President Ali Hasanov and representative of the ruling party, asserted that this was a normal practice of lobbying.
Once the report was published, it was the PACE's natural obligation to take action. Given the seriousness of the allegations, some have claimed, the current sanctions are not severe enough. Nonetheless, we must take into account that the PACE is not a law enforcement body, and the measures it can take against members accused of corruption are limited to those outlined in the organization's Code of Conduct of 2012.
PACE's application of all possible sanctions was a clear signal to the parliaments of the four accused deputies' respective countries, as well as to their law enforcement agencies. The only fitting end to this story would be the initiation of proper internal investigations of these four deputies, which would ensure an outcome more befitting of the crimes committed.
Another significant impact of the sanctions is that PACE has demonstrated that it can apply penalties when it is required.
As it is already known, in December 2017, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe invoked a particular procedure for the first time - one which is known in academic circles as the "nuclear option." The procedure orders sanctions against member states who do not execute decisions of the European Court, which are to be applied within the organization. The precedent, in this case, was the non-fulfillment of the European Court's decision on Ilgar Mammadov, chairman of the Republican Alternative party (ReAl) of Azerbaijan, who is a "prisoner of conscience." Currently, the procedure is being implemented by the Grand Chamber of European Court, and it is expected to decide whether or not Azerbaijan violated its obligations.
If the Grand Chamber uncovers violations of certain liabilities, the Cabinet of Ministers and PACE will have legitimate authority to impose sanctions. PACE's sanctions have demonstrated that the organization also has the political will to suspend the voting rights of the Azerbaijani delegation if Mammadov is not released from prison.
Prosesin məntiqi sonluğuna çatmasınıı hamı gözləyir, o cümlədən 2013-cü ildə hesabatın qəbul edilməməsindən dərhal sonra həbs edilən və indiyədək dəmir barmaqlıqlar arxasında saxlanılan siyasi mıhbuslar.
Since the process that led to these sanctions must be viewed within the broader context of the political prisoner problem in Azerbaijan, it is clear that further action will be needed.
First, the Committee of Ministers should officially comment on the corruption charges and clarify whether or not there were any such offers from the Azerbaijani side during the implementation of the European Court's decision. Even though the decision on Ilgar Mammadov came into force in the autumn of 2014, the real mechanism for its implementation was only launched in December 2017.
Second, a new rapporteur with a strong mandate on the problem of political prisoners in Azerbaijan should be appointed. This mandate must include visiting Azerbaijan and making specific reports. Steps have been taken in both directions; the Committee has received a request from PACE deputies to provide both written and oral statements about the corruption charges, of which 25 PACE deputies have submitted a draft.
The wait continues for the process to be taken to its logical conclusion, especially for those political prisoners who have been detained and kept behind bars since the rejection of the report in 2013.