Human Rights As A Lobbying Tool: When Is A Conference Not A Conference?

The human rights situation in the former Soviet republics is a matter of great concern to the EU, not just because of those that have already joined the EU and have failed to honour the commitments they have made in this area, notably Romania, but also because of those that aspire to join in the near future.

This week the European Parliament in Brussels was the venue for a conference on the matter of the persecution of lawyers in Moldova, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan, organised by the Polish-based Open Dialog Foundation (ODF), which also has offices in Brussels.

The conference heard from a number of speakers who recounted their own experiences including the highly respected human rights campaigner Leyla Yunus, who along with her husband Arif faces charges of treason in Azerbaijan, which has threatened to “forcibly” return her to the country. 

Mrs Yunus was released from prison on grounds of her deteriorating health in 2015 after serving more than a year of an eight and a half year sentence on charges that included Fraud and tax evasion. She and her husband travelled to the Netherlands so she could receive medical treatment where they live to this day. She is currently Director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy which she founded in 1995, and which is now registered in the Netherlands. Mrs Yunus has the distinction of being the first female leader of a political party in Azerbaijan. 

However, under the respectable veneer another agenda of the conference emerged. 

ODF has been the subject of much scrutiny for its defence of Kazakh fugitive oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov, former head of Kazakhstan’s BTA Bank, who has been convicted in absentia of the embezzlement of up to $7.6 billion. It has been alleged that Ablyazov funds ODF, which has itself under investigation by the Polish tax authorities.

Polish centre right MEP Anna Fotyga, a former foreign minister in Poland, said that until recently she worked closely with Open Dialog Foundation, particularly on issues relating to Ukraine and Moldova but said she has now “totally severed” her connections with the foundation because, she says, it has “ceased to be a non-political NGO" and "is not a credible organisation.”

Ablyazov is facing 20 years in jail should he return to his homeland. This case is presented by ODF as a political persecution. 

However, having fled to the UK he quickly racked up a conviction in the English courts for contempt of court. The man named in the High Court of England and Wales as Ablyazov’s “accomplice” in an illegal transfer of assets is one Viktor Khrapunov, another fugitive from justice who is also defended by ODF.

As well as his 20 year sentence in Khazakstan, a 22 month sentence in the UK, Ablyazov faces extradition warrants from not only his home country, but also from Ukraine and Russia.

Khrapunov is also facing extradition, and is wanted by Interpol for charges involving organised crime activities. 

Ablyazov’s associate and former member of the board of the BTA bank, Ms. Botagoz Jardemalie, spoke at the conference when she claimed that legal actions against her are “politically motivated”. Ms. Jardemarlie is currently resident in Belgium, and it is worth noting that it has been reported that Ablyazov has recently made a deal with the Belgian authorities to secure Belgian citizenship. “Birds of a feather flock together”, as the saying goes.

British Labour MEP Julie Ward, who also spoke at the conference, was one of a small number of MEPs who signed a letter calling upon Interpol to cancel their arrest warrant on Ablyazov. 

Julie Ward Mep

Ms. Ward, who has expressed concerns over the “political abuse” of the Red Notice process previously told EU Today, ”Being a billionaire and oligarch Mr Ablyazov is not exactly the sort of grassroots activist I am normally involved with on such cases.

"But whatever allegations he faces it is not justification for locking someone up for nothing other than politically motivated reasons.

"If he has done something wrong and this is proven in a court of law then he should, of course, face the consequences for any criminality.”

Despite having stated during her closing remarks that she was was familiar with some of the cases discussed during the event, and informing the audience that “I think that human rights should be at the core of our work…. All elected representatives should care about human rights”  and “I am very busy on human rights”  and confirming her credentials by telling the audience that “When I got elected, I made a decision to stand up for human rights… this is the second meeting today where I have been talking about defending human rights”, as she was leaving the conference Ms. Ward refused an approach from journalists, stating “I don’t deal with human rights… I’m not on the human rights committee.”

As had been predicted, the conference ended without any opportunity whatsoever for journalists to ask questions: the “conference”, which was orchestrated and stage-managed, was little more than platform for interested parties to make statements and to defend their own positions; it was nothing more than a lobbying event. 

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Gary Cartwright

Gary Cartwright

Gary Cartwright is publishing editor of EU Today.

An experienced journalist and published author, he specialises in environment, energy, and defence.

He also has more than 10 years experience of working as a staff member in the EU institutions, working with political groups and MEPs in various policy areas.

Gary's latest book WANTED MAN: THE STORY OF MUKHTAR ABLYAZOV: A Manual for Criminals on How to Avoid Punishment in the EU is currently available from Amazon

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