“The Azerbaijani regime continues to use torture, politically-motivated criminal charges, harassment, international kidnapping, and other forms of intimidation to silence human rights defenders, independent journalists, and religious leaders,” said Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), who chairs the House panel on global human rights. “It is evident that there are important security and economic ties between our countries; however these violations cannot be ignored.”
Smith made those comments late last month while unveiling his latest legislative effort to hold officials in Azerbaijan accountable for one of the worst human rights situations in Europe. Joined by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), the legislation, H. Res. 537, would, among other things, press the U.S. government to “prioritize the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the people in Azerbaijan when dealing with their government and urge the application of provisions of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act (P.L. 114-328) to punish Azerbaijani officials who violate internationally recognized human rights.
It also calls on the government of Azerbaijan “to immediately release all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience and to cease targeting those who advocate for government based on accountability and democratic values.” Estimates of the number of political prisoners and religious practitioners being held in Azerbaijan suggest almost 120 individuals, more than twice the number in Russia and Belarus combined. Sanctions have been imposed on both of those countries for their human rights abuses, and yet not a single step has been taken against the government in Baku.
The introduction of H. Res. 537, before it was even taken up by committee or voted on in the full House, had a mildly positive impact, stoking fear among Azerbaijani officials that they might pay a price for their egregious behavior. The editor of the independent Turan Information Agency, Mehman Aliyev, was released from pretrial detention and placed under house arrest (still an outrageous abuse but a slight improvement); the rigged tax case against the news agency appeared to have been dropped, but recent indications are that it has been dredged up again. Turan, which has been in operation for 27 years under various adverse conditions, courageously resumed operations October 1.
Even while the government takes small steps to undo the bad things it has done, it has continued its ugly crackdown on all critics and groups it doesn’t like. In recent weeks, authorities have rounded up and detained dozens of suspected gay people, causing panic among the already-oppressed LGBT community. Ahead of a rally against government corruption, authorities reportedly detained at least three members of the opposition Popular Front Party. And this past weekend, Turan TV journalist Fikret Huseynov, who received Dutch citizenship two years ago, was detained at Kyiv’s airport on the request of Azerbaijani authorities.
The situation in the country took an ugly turn after the 2013 re-election of Ilham Aliyev and the start of the Euro-Maidan Revolution in Ukraine. Spooked that something similar might occur in his country, Aliyev launched a major crackdown, going after activists, journalists, opposition leaders, and religious believers. Azerbaijani authorities recently kidnapped a journalist, Afghan Mukhtarli, who was seeking refuge in neighboring Georgia, tortured him, and brought him back to Azerbaijan illegally.
Azerbaijan is currently ranked 162nd out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2017 World Press Freedom Index. It scored a very low 30 on the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index indicating “rampant corruption,” as revealed in the recent investigative reports titled “Azerbaijan Laundromat,” which exposed $2.9 billion money laundering.
“Azerbaijan has a very dire human rights situation,” Nils Muiznieks, the Human Rights Commissioner of the Council of Europe, told RFE/RL in an interview in Prague on September 26. “Human rights defenders, independent bloggers, and journalists are under enormous pressures there, and there was a time when all of my primary partners in the country were behind bars on trumped-up charges.”
Despite the Azerbaijani government’s scandalous actions, senior officials in Baku are engaging with E.U. counterparts on a new partnership agreement with Brussels. The European Union should make it clear that it will not entertain any negotiations unless and until the government in Baku ends its ugly human rights crackdown.
The United States has measures it can take, too. For starters, the U.S. Congress should adopt the Smith-McGovern legislation. Congress should also hold more hearings focused on Azerbaijan.
In addition, the Trump Administration should follow the recent recommendation of a group of non-governmental organizations in applying the Global Magnitsky Act—legislation passed last year that imposes a visa ban and asset freeze on foreign officials involved in gross human rights abuses and serious corruption—to Mirgafar Seyidov, head of the Baku City Police, for the alleged torture of two activists. Other Azerbaijani officials, from police to judges, to political leaders, and even President Aliyev himself, should be considered by the State and Treasury Departments for inclusion on the Magnitsky list. As Rep. Smith noted, applying the Magnitsky Act “would shatter the impunity that rights violators in the government of Azerbaijan enjoy.”
During a reception at the United Nations last month, President Trump posed for a photograph with a smiling President Aliyev and their wives. Given what is happening in Azerbaijan these days, the two leaders should not have been photographed together, let alone seen smiling.