Debono Grech shills for Azerbaijan in debate on Aliyev’s deteriorating democracy

Labour MP says he is ‘not in favour of dictators’ but suggests removing Aliyev from power could send Azerbaijan down the route of Iraq and Libya

File photo: Joe Debono Grech in the Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly
File photo: Joe Debono Grech in the Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly

Labour MP Joe Debono Grech failed to make any mention of imprisoned human rights activist Anar Mammadali during a Council of Europe parliamentary assembly debate on Azerbaijan, after having himself flagged the politically-motivated imprisonment back in 2013.

As co-rapporteur on Azerbaijan, Debono Grech had expressed concern on the charges of tax evasion levied against Mammadli, whose Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center which monitored the last presidential election in Azerbaijan and published critical reports on the electoral process, was repeatedly refused official registration by the authorities.

[WATCH] Debono Grech’s intervention: scroll drop-down menu for ‘Debono’

But on Tuesday in a debate on a new report on Azerbaijan’s ailing democratic institutions, Debono Grech – whose term as co-rapporteur ended in January 2015 – seemed to complain that Azerbaijan was never absent from the CoE’s parliamentary assembly’s agenda, and warned that the oil and gas-rich republic could head down the road of Libya or Iraq if president Ilham Aliyev is removed.

The statement pricked the ears of human rights observers petitioning for the release of people like Mammadli and journalist Khadija Ismayilova.

While voting in favour of the report, which called for the release of political prisoners and human rights activists and other journalists suffering from Aliyev’s crackdown, Debono Grech sounded ‘annoyed’ at the repeated presence of Azerbaijan on the human rights agenda.

“I have been a member of the Parliamentary Assembly for nine years and the subject has always been Azerbaijan. Whatever happens, the subject is Azerbaijan. Most of the countries that were under the communist rule of the Soviet Union are never mentioned here. Azerbaijan is the only one. I am not saying that Azerbaijan is perfect – as most of us know, no country is perfect, not even the ones in western Europe.

“We have the problem in Ukraine, where there is chaos. I come from a Mediterranean country, and I am not in favour of dictators. Everyone wanted to get rid of Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi, so we got rid of Gaddafi and we got rid of Saddam Hussein. What do we have now? We have chaos,” he said - perhaps omitting whether he was equating Aliyev to a dictator like Gaddafi and Hussein.

“Do we want chaos in Azerbaijan? When I was first appointed as a rapporteur on Azerbaijan, my colleague, Mr Agramunt, and I went there and met the opposition and the NGOs. The only thing they wanted was for us to remove the government. I said that we cannot; the Council of Europe is not part of removing governments – that is not our job. Our job is to help these countries become more democratic.”

Debono Grech said MPs could not expect a former Soviet republic that joined the Council of Europe some 20 years ago, to be at par with the West in terms of democratisation. “I hope that, with the help of the Council of Europe, Azerbaijan will become fully democratic.”

President Ilham Aliyev has been repeatedly returned to power in 2008 and 2013 with over 88% of the vote and his family has control over various commercial sectors of the country, apart from Aliyev’s own power as head of state and of the executive.

A diplomatic cable dispatched by the US Embassy in Azerbaijan, part of the cache of documents obtained by the WikiLeaks website, had Aliyev to two iconic mafia dons from “The Godfather” movie trilogy – impulsive Sonny Corleone and his brother, the coldly calculating Michael.

In their new report on Azerbaijan, whose state oil company SOCAR will be supplying Malta with liquefied natural gas for a new plant in Delimara, co-rapporteurs Pedro Agramunt and Tadeus Iwinski expressed “deep concerns over the crackdown on human rights in Azerbaijan, where working conditions for NGOs and human rights defenders have significantly deteriorated, and by the increasing number of reprisals against independent media and advocates of freedom of expression in Azerbaijan.”

The report calls on the authorities to end this systemic harassment of those critical of the government.