Who can be defined as political prisoner
The issue is intensively discussed in the Council of Europe with no solution found so far
Prof. Tatiana Burudjieva
15 June, 2012
Since 2001, the issue of political prisoners has become one of the highly contested issues attracting attention for intensity of its being discussed in the Council of Europe. When this issue was brought to the agenda of the Council of Europe, the concept of "political prisoner" and its legal nature had not been defined in any internationally legal document and the documents of the Council of Europe either.It should be noted that this issue has not been solved on the internationally legal basis so far. Moreover, none of international courts use this definition. It is obvious that the European Court of Human Rights is a specialized and the most effective institution in the field of human rights and fundamental freedoms. The decisions of this court are precedent and their implementation is binding for the member states. One of the main points is that the European Court of Human Rights does not use the definition of "political prisoner" in its decisions either.The issue of political prisoners came to the agenda in connection with the membership of Azerbaijan and Armenia into this institution. Thus, several human rights defender organizations of the two South Caucasian countries claimed the presence of political prisoners in their country and submitted a list of alleged political prisoners to the Council of Europe.In early 2001, an independent experts group was created by the CE Secretary General for the definition of the presence of political prisoners in Armenia and Azerbaijan in order to put an end to legal shortcoming in the definition of political prisoners. The independent experts group worked out a report on the definition of criteria for the presence of political prisoners and issued this report to the CE Secretary-General.The criteria proposed by the independent experts, envisaged reconsideration of cases or the release of particular people alleged to be a political prisoner under the list of some NGOs during the full admission of Azerbaijan and Armenia to the Council of Europe, and these criteria covered reconsideration of the cases of particular prisoners in a short period of time as a consensus and was of a temporary nature. Thus, the report worked out by the independent experts was not a commonly recognized legal document applicable to member states of the Council of Europe.Nevertheless, some forces in the Council of Europe continued to use the concept of "political prisoner" for political prisoners so far. They ignored the lack of commonly recognized document covering legal nature of the concept of "political prisoner" and succeeded in the appointment of a special rapporteur within the mandate of following up the issue of political prisoners only on Azerbaijan out of 47 CE member states. Afterwards, the Legal Affairs Committee de-facto admitted the lack of the criteria for the definition of "political prisoners" and made a decision on preparing the second report on "Revisiting the issue of political prisoners". At the same time, the Committee decided to merge both reports in question and charge the same rapporteur - Christoph Straesser with their preparation. Therefore, the issue of political prisoners became dependent on the position of one MP within the Council of Europe.According to this logic, the same rapporteur prepares criteria and works out a report on political prisoners in the country within these criteria. This approach cannot be considered objective by any means. Thus, it strongly contradicts with the principles of "rule of law" and "equality of member states" envisaged in Article 3 of the Regulations of the Council of Europe.Thus, the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights had repeatedly discussed this issue and finally, at the meeting in October of 2011, made a decision to change the title "Revisiting the issue of political prisoners" in CE countries. Though the adoption of this decision brought to the agenda the investigation of the issue of political prisoners without any discrimination in all 47 CE member states, discrimination towards member states continued.Thus, during the January 2012 part session of PACE, the rapporteur Straesser distributed a document named "Information Memorandum" to the attention of the members of the Committee. This one-sided document showed that though the title of report was changed and expanded through all CoE member states, Mr. Straesser intends to focus only on Azerbaijan. Moreover, the Azerbaijani human rights defenders who were invited to the hearings in the Committee underlined that there were no criteria of "political prisoner" applicable to all member states. The absolute majority of the Committee members, who delivered speech, highlighted the fact that the criteria of the concept of "political prisoner" applicable to all member states should be developed and stressed the necessity of splitting reports on following up political prisoners and the definition of the concept of a "political prisoner".Finally, after intensive discussions at the meeting of the PACE Committee on Legal Affairs on 21 May 2012, the decision was adopted to split the report on "Revisiting the issue of political prisoners" into two separate reports - definition of the concept of "political prisoner" and follow-up of political prisoners in member states.Overall, this decision is of utmost importance to the Council of Europe. Thus, this decision is a step towards respecting European values and rule of law in the European area, where CE member states live together as a family. On the other hand, according to the decision of Committee, first of all, the criteria for the concept of a "political prisoner" applicable to all member states should be prepared and adopted in the Council of Europe. Only afterwards, the follow-up of the alleged political prisoners in the member states may be carried out without any discrimination.Thus, PACE Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights made its decision on 21 May. According to this decision, the issue of political prisoner should be solved on a legal basis. It is clear that some international NGOs use the concept like "political prisoner", "prisoners of conscience" etc. in their activities and they have own criteria on these concepts. In most cases, their criteria differ strongly and contradict one another. In its turn, this causes some discontent and makes urgent to prepare universal criteria for the concept of "political prisoner". I hope that as an influential international organization in the field of human rights and fundamental freedoms, the Council of Europe will succeed in the preparation and adoption of universal criteria regarding this important issue applicable to all member states. Undoubtedly, this is a very responsible and difficult, but honorable work. Thus, the solution of the issue of political prisoner on a legal basis means putting an end to political speculations regarding this issue and shows the respect to the rule of law.Tatiana Burudjieva is a PhD in sociology. She teaches political science at the University of Sofia. Since 2006, member of the European Association of Political Consultants.