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Thursday, 6 February, 2003, 22:33 GMT
Azerbaijan in a stir over political prisoner
Countryside near Lerik
Azerbaijan's Talysh zone lies near the border with Iran (Picture: Megan Greene)
Judges in Azerbaijan are preparing their verdict in the case of a man seen by many Azeris as a dangerous separatist, but by the Council of Europe as a political prisoner.

An appeal to the European Court of Human Rights has already been prepared

Human rights activist, Eldar Zeynalov
Alikram Gumbatov was the leader of the self-declared Talysh Mugan Autonomous Republic which existed briefly in the south of the country at a time of political instability in 1993.

In 1995 he was sentenced to death, later commuted to life imprisonment, on a range of charges including treason.

But the Council of Europe - a Strasbourg-based human rights watchdog uniting parliamentarians from 44 European countries - regards him as a victim of political revenge.

Trial hiatus

"The years 1992 to 1995 were crucial civil war years," the Belgian MP Georges Clerfayt reported to a Council of Europe committee last year.

Lenkoran market
The city of Lenkoran lies in a sub-tropical region (Picture Megan Greene)
"Now that Azerbaijan has genuinely set out along the path to democracy... should the losers of the earlier struggles for power be made to go on paying indefinitely for their failures and their mistakes?"

The Azeri authorities grudgingly agreed to release or re-try a list of men named as political prisoners by the Council of Europe when they joined the organisation in January 2001.

Gumbatov's retrial opened exactly a year later, on 24 January 2002, and the last evidence was heard on 16 December.

More than seven weeks later, defence lawyer Elman Osmanov is still waiting to be invited to deliver his concluding speech - a delay he says is inexplicable unless the government has paused to consider the appropriate outcome.

There are a range of options, but no-one expects an acquittal - and the verdict is unlikely to be the end of the matter.

"An appeal to the European Court of Human Rights has already been prepared," says human rights activist Eldar Zeynalov.

Talysh minority

The proclamation of the Talysh Mugan Autonomous Republic (TMAR) in the city of Lenkoran was widely regarded as treasonous in Baku because it was interpreted as separatism.

The move came as the battle to retain control over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, in the west of the country, was being lost, and coincided with the start of a coup d'etat in the north of the country.

However, those involved - all members of the Talysh minority - say they always envisaged the republic as a constituent part of Azerbaijan.

Eldar Zeynalov claims that the fact that Gumbatov is Talysh has clearly influenced the course of his trials.

"Our authorities could never see this case as a purely criminal case," he says.

"Gumbatov is always discussed as a Talysh."

Little public support

The deputy editor of Azerbaijan's Ekho newspaper, Nair Aliev, also says the re-trial has not been "objective", but adds that Gumbatov has little public support.

To anyone with common sense it's clear that such actions cannot go unpunished

Gultekin Gadzhiev, member of Azerbaijan parliament
"An attempt at separatism did after all take place," he says.

A parliamentary deputy and member of Azerbaijan's delegation to the Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly, Gultekin Gadzhiev, is more categorical.

"To anyone with common sense it's clear that such actions cannot go unpunished," she told Ekho.

"Azerbaijani society has already given its assessment of Alikram Gumbatov's actions and further speculation on the matter is pointless."

Mr Osmanov now expects a verdict from the court before the end of February.

See also:

21 Aug 02 | Country profiles
28 Sep 02 | Europe
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