PARIS (AP) — A European law and human rights commission on Wednesday criticized proposed constitutional changes in Azerbaijan that would extend the president's term, a conclusion that drew an angry response from the ex-Soviet nation.
The Venice Commission, a watchdog body of constitutional law experts based in France, released a preliminary report saying that extending the presidential mandate "cannot be justified" and that other proposed legal changes would upset the balance of powers.
The commission expressed concern about a measure limiting public gatherings and said a measure giving the president power to dissolve parliament would weaken political dissent.
Azerbaijan is to hold a referendum Monday on the changes. Hundreds of demonstrators gathered in the capital of Azerbaijan Saturday to protest against them.
Some critics characterize the oil-rich Caspian Sea nation as effectively a dynasty as President Ilham Aliyev is the son of the previous president and see the proposed measures as a mechanism for extending his rule.
The Venice Commission experts are part of the Council of Europe, a rights authority whose 47 members — including Azerbaijan — have signed the European Convention on Human Rights.
The commission also complained that Azerbaijan rushed these reforms through without enough parliamentary and public debate, and said it regrets that Azerbaijan didn't consult the commission.
Shahin Aliyev, the head of the legal department in Azerbaijan's presidential administration, shrugged off the Venice Commission's criticism as hasty and unfounded.
"We are seeing that hasty conclusion, which has many flaws, as politically driven," he said at a briefing in the capital Baku. "They speak to us in a language of ultimatums."
The presidential aide voiced surprise that the commission hadn't asked Azerbaijan for any explanation or clarification before issuing its verdict. He rebuffed the criticism and argued that the proposed constitutional changes are intended to streamline the government structure in order to help conduct political and economic reforms.
Aliyev, in office since succeeding his father in 2003, has firmly allied the Shia Muslim nation with the West, helping secure its energy and security interests and offset Russia's influence in the strategic Caspian region. At the same time, his government has long faced criticism in the West for showing little tolerance for dissent and holding elections that fall below democratic standards.