Council of Europe assembly leader stripped of powers after Assad visit

Members of human rights body’s parliamentary assembly pass vote of no confidence in Spaniard Pedro Agramunt

The leader of the parliamentary assembly in Europe’s oldest human rights body has been stripped of his powers after being accused of tarnishing his office by meeting the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.

In a move unprecedented in the 68-year history of the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe (Pace), senior MPs passed a vote of no confidence in the president, Pedro Agramunt.

The Spanish senator was re-elected president for a second one-year term in January, but has since faced criticism for his handling of alleged corruption at the assembly and a recent surprise visit he made to Damascus on a Russian military jet.

A cross-party group of Pace’s senior leaders agreed unanimously on Friday that Agramunt should be banned from making official visits or public statements as president.

The assembly, which was co-founded by Winston Churchill after the second world war, has no power to impeach, limiting its options.

Agramunt had been due to make a statement, but failed to show up to the meeting to discuss his future.

“The president chose not to attend the bureau today and has not presented a letter of resignation. As a result, and in the context of the current rules of procedure under which the president cannot be compelled to resign, the bureau felt it necessary to take these steps,” said Sir Roger Gale, a British Conservative MP who chaired the meeting.

But Agramunt showed no signs that he would hand over the reins. A statement in his name circulated among journalists at the Strasbourg assembly described recent criticism of him as “an entirely bizarre case and a regrettable spectacle”.

The statement did not directly respond to calls for his resignation, but urged members to “recover the path of consensus to achieve our foundational goals … and ensure that this situation does not happen again”.

Officials in Strasbourg did not know where Agramunt was and his office did not immediately respond to questions.

His refusal to resign takes the human rights body into uncharted waters. “For the good of the organisation, he should stand aside immediately,” said Pieter Omtzigt, a Dutch centre-right MP who has been one of Agramunt’s strongest critics. “His behaviour has already tarnished the assembly [and] is now further damaging the work of the assembly at a time when human rights are under great pressure and democracy in large parts of Europe [is also under pressure].”

Frank Schwabe, a German socialist, said: “Agramunt virtually personifies the fundamental problems of the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe … [His] recent visit to Assad symbolises the exploitation of the Council of Europe by several governments, which refuse to take the institution’s core values seriously.”

Agramunt flew to Damascus with a Russian delegation that included Leonid Slutsky, the head of the Russian Duma’s foreign affairs committee, days before a deadly chemical attack in Idlib province.

The unannounced trip was reported by Russian media as a visit by the president of Pace, leaving furious diplomats in Strasbourg scrambling to distance themselves from Agramunt’s freelance diplomacy.

Agramunt said on Monday that he had made a mistake by meeting Assad and claimed his visit was “manipulated by Russian media”. He insisted he had travelled not representing the Council of Europe but as a Spanish senator “looking for peace”.


Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

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