1.5. The decision that undermined PACE’s credibility: The criteria for political prisoners passed by 89-89 votes

Christoph Strässer’s report on “The definition of political prisoners” was included on the agenda of PACE’s autumn plenary session held on 1-5 October 2012.

On 2 October afternoon, two amendments were tabled to the draft report. Representatives of all political groups in PACE were among the signatories to the proposals on the amendments. The first amendment, as most of the MPs said, stipulated the de facto recognition that the Assembly had up to now never approved the criteria on the political prisoners. The second amendment envisaged a reference to the exclusive competence of the European Court of Human Rights with regard to the interpretation and application of any criteria.

The next day, on 3 October, meetings of the PACE political groups were held. After the meeting, members of the Socialists group were chatting excitedly and surprisingly in corridors and cafes that Andreas Gross, the group leader, showed disrespect for his colleagues at the meeting, made them to stand up one by one, compiled a name list, demanding them to vote for Christoph Strässer’s report. They were saying that in the history of PACE no such blatant injustice had ever been done against its members.

I should also add that no such an “indicative” voting has ever been traced in PACE’s practice. Andreas Gross forced members of the group to vote against the amendments through such an “indicative” voting, threatening to expel those who will vote the other way round. Consequently, he succeeded in compiling a list of 46 votes from the Socialists group.

At the meeting of the European People’s Party (EPP) group, members were allowed a free vote. The vice-president of the group, a Spanish MP was chairing the meeting. The vice-president, being in favor of the amendments, was subjected to heavy pressure by Dutch and German MPs at the meeting. Aggressive scenes that had never seen at the EPP group meetings earlier were registered there. Germans parliamentarians at the meeting even demanded an immediate resignation of the vice-president. Moreover, a few hours later, unfortunately, Italian EPP group chairman Luca Volonte, in a letter distributed among the members, said he was against the amendments.

According to some MPs, in the Liberal democrats group, German MP Marina Schuster called on all members to vote against the amendments. The majority of the group agreed to come out against and vote against the amendments. The formal opinion of the group towards the amendments was negative.

The amendments enjoyed more support in the Conservatives Group, but members were told to vote freely. The same referred to the small group of communists.

What did the Committee secretaries Andrew Drzemczewski and Gunter Schirmer, including the staff of the Secretary-General’s Office, who should have maintained neutrality, do immediately after the amendments were tabled?

On 2 October in the evening and on the following day before the Committee and Assembly meetings, resorting to different tricks, they approached PACE members in the corridors and cafes to purposefully lobby them to vote against the amendments and in favor of the report.

In a rush, they were trying to distribute among MPs various rough-and-ready statements and addresses, including the so-called articles by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Some members of the Socialists group said that the group leader Andreas Gross, rapporteur Christoph Strässer, as well as German MPs with the Secretariat’s support was lobbying the members of other groups to speak against the proposed amendments and vote accordingly for the report.

Forced by Christoph Strässer, the head and members of the German delegation were openly threatening members of other countries’ delegations facing economic difficulties at the moment, trying to force them to vote against the proposed amendments. German MPs did not even hesitate to threaten their counterparts by raising the issue of economic sanctions and preventing aid in the Bundestag against their countries if they vote for the amendments.

Finally, on 3 October, in the second half of the day, the two amendments on the draft report were put to the vote in the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights. At the Committee meeting, Mr. Drzemczewski, the head of the Secretariat, flagrantly violated the existing rules of procedure. He spoke before the voting on the amendments, stating that if the Committee adopts these amendments, the PACE chairman would veto them, using his powers. After heated discussions with rapporteur Christoph Strässer and many German MPs, the first amendment with two technical corrections was put to vote and adopted by the Committee.

The second amendment, the crux of the debates, triggered more protests. Nevertheless, the amendment was adopted by 30 to 28 votes. On the one hand, the approval of this amendment was the triumph of impartiality, on the other hand, it turned out to be a complete surprise for PACE. Of course, Christoph Strässer, German MPs and their allies in the Secretariat were extremely disappointed with the result of the vote.

After the committee meeting, several parliamentarians said that the amendments were actually backed by 34 votes as against announced 30. However, the Secretariat tried to lie in favor of the rapporteur and falsify the result. Nonetheless, the votes in favor were so persuasive that the final tally could not be falsified. As 30 minutes was allocated for the voting in the Committee, there was no opportunity to carry out anti-Azerbaijani campaign there. Consequently, the Committee members voted for integrity and justice.

An interval from the end of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights meeting and the assembly’s plenary session was two hours. During the two-hour interval, the leader of the Socialists group, members of the German delegation, Andrew Drzemczewski and Schirmer, Secretaries of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights, were engaged in extensive lobbying activities to influence the vote in the plenary session.

Approaching members of delegations from the southern European countries, who were supportive of the amendments, they demanded them to change their positions on this issue and openly stated that they would seriously obstruct Germany’s support for their countries in solving economic and financial crises. The head of the German delegation urged heads of other countries’ delegations to follow the German directive.

Everyone knew that Germany did not hide behaving as the sole real power holder in Europe as it made own demands vis-à-vis other countries, threatened parliamentarians with informing their Foreign Ministries about the issue in question with application of personal and general sanctions against them. The dictatorial manners of German MPs with support of parliamentarians from Baltic and Scandinavian states were shocking for all observers.

A lot of Armenians, unable to speak at the committee, spoke in the general debates. Now, Armenians seized the opportunity to launch a serious attack against the amendments, to lend support for the Germans, as well as make attempts to influence the whole Assembly by directly attacking Azerbaijan in a very emotional and insulting manner.

The plenary session was addressed by handpicked representatives of the political groups: they were people, appointed and instructed by the group leadership in advance; particularly, it was obvious that representatives of the Socialists and Liberals groups were hostile and biased against Azerbaijan.

Nevertheless, some MPs courageously defended the amendments. However, each time, after their positive speeches, a handful of MPs immediately came under overt and covert attacks and insults by socialist parliamentarians mainly from Germany, the Baltic and Scandinavian countries.

As if the plenary meeting that lasted two hours and a halfwas not debating criteria for defining the political prisoners because it was turned into a platform against Azerbaijan with the display of biased and hostile stances. The major actors of this ignominy were German MPs, representatives of the socialists and the liberals.

True, many MPs provided examples with reference to specific cases that the proposed criteria were obsolete and inapplicable. They also noted that the amendment proposed to paragraph 3 of the report provided for a fair and legal solution to the issue within the framework of the existing competences of the European Court of Human Rights as stipulated by the Convention.

However, Christoph Strässer, Maria Schuster and other socialists and liberals entreatingly appealed to participants in the plenary session and expressed their concern hysterically that in case the amendment to the paragraph 3 of the report was adopted, the report against Azerbaijan would not be passed in January.

Christoph Strässer was openly saying: “Do not get me wrong, if the amendment is adopted, my report against Azerbaijan would not be passed in January.” Exactly, speeches by these pro-Armenians, socialists and liberals pressured by Andreas Gross had a serious impact on positions, and even after such a political clownery, the voting ended in 89 to 89 votes.

While exerting pressure on their colleagues, the leadership of the Liberal Democrats group demonstrated biased position towards Azerbaijan’s activities in the Council of Europe and levelled accusations against our country, using inappropriate phrases that run against the reputation of this organization.

For their part, members of the Azerbaijani delegation displayed tolerance, did not succumb to provocations and even during the discussion of Christoph Strässer’s report, they remained tight-lipped. The first amendment to the draft report was approved with two technical corrections. The result of the voting on the second amendment was 89 to 89 with 5 abstentions. One vote was needed for the passage of the amendment.

Regrettably, this is a rule and nothing can be done about it. Once again, regrettably, the president of the Conservatives group, the chairman of the plenary session, was not allowed to vote. His vote could have changed the result for the approval of the amendment. Some experienced MPs said they had not seen such a tie and major disagreement in the Council of Europe!

The latest voting was about the final approval of the report. The majority of the PACE members did not understand the importance of the general voting after the amendments were not made to the paragraph 3.

A noteworthy moment was that though the report was theoretically applicable to all member states of the Council of Europe, all speeches pertaining to the issue of political prisoners were against Azerbaijan. On many occasions, during this general discussions, Azerbaijan over the issue of political prisoners came under fierce attacks from all directions and all these affected the result of the vote.

The appeal of Germans and their allies was very emotional. They were making dramatic appeals in the debates and this had an outright negative impact on the result. The discussion on a legal issue ended up in squalls and personal insults. Many were surprised that despite outright and critical speeches against the amendments, the vote on the second amendment was equal (89/89).

After this rare political thriller ever seen in Strasbourg, this debate and voting, no doubt, shook PACE’s credibility on this issue and revealed a deep crack in the Assembly. It became clear that Christoph Stràsser focused on an attack against Azerbaijan, and was indeed never interested in discussions on defining the criteria for political prisoners.

Also, now more MPs found out that his upcoming report on Azerbaijan carry a serious risk of interfering in the exclusive competences of the European Court and the discussions revealed that such a risk was very high.

Finally, Christoph Strässer’s proposal to paragraph 3 was adopted by 89 to 89 votes. Neither he, nor PACE as a whole had moral right to be proud of the “victory”. Thus, 50% (89 persons) of MPs, who attended the vote, did not want the Assembly to interfere in the European Court’s exclusive competence on this matter.

I think this political game that ended in a draw, i.e., 89 to 89 votes, went down in history as a stain on the influence of such an influential organization as the Council of Europe. If football teams end a game in a draw – they and their fans both leave the stadium disappointed. Even when the first and second halves of a final football match ends in a draw, the teams go to extra time until one of the teams score. By this comparison, I would like to say that the result of a football match impacts only teams and their fans, but the decisions of the Council of Europe has a pivotal role on the lives of all people, therefore, this institution needs perfect regulations.

Thus, this “victory” with 89 to 89 votes in the Council of Europe caused by disputable procedures, seriously damaged the reputation of this institution, its image as a guardian of justice and fairness. As if democracy died on the day when the decision was passed with 89 to 89 votes in Strasbourg. So, in order to succeed in a result of 89 to 89 votes:

-Leaders of the Socialists and Liberals violated their commitments of neutrality for the purpose of preventing a democratic discussion and by conducting anti-Azerbaijani lobby activities;

-Rumors were rife that Andreas Gross, the leader of the Socialists Group from Switzerland, forced group members at meetings of the political group to vote against the amendments, threatening them with expulsion from the group and compiled nominative lists;

-The German delegation threatened members of foreign delegations facing economic difficulties with suspension of crucial financial aid, forced them to vote in favor of Christoph Strässer’s report. The voting was accompanied by political blackmail and even personal threats;

-During the discussion, Christoph Strässer’s demonstrated organized, biased and hostile position against Azerbaijan instead of a planned, unbiased debate on defining the criteria for political prisoners that could be applied to member states, saying “Do not get me wrong, if the amendment is adopted, my report against Azerbaijan would not be passed in January”.

In the context of such biased anti-Azerbaijani hysteria, Christoph Strässer’s report on the “Definition of political prisoners” was legally passed due to imperfect procedural rules. However, this decision went down in the history of the Council of Europe as a politically, morally and ethically shameful incident.