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U.S.-Azerbaijan relations must depend on respect for human rights, group says

The Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS) is disappointed that more than fifty U.S. politicians, instead of showing solidarity with Azerbaijan's civil society and the principles of freedom and democracy, have chosen to join the U.S.-Azerbaijan Convention in Baku, which appears to be yet another publicity stunt for an increasingly authoritarian regime under President Ilham Aliyev.

Notably, the visit of U.S. delegation happens less than two months after the U.S. State Department cataloged a series of human concerns in Azerbaijan, including the intimidation, arrest, and use of force against journalists and human rights and democracy activists online and offline.

The U.S. politicians' visit is in direct contradiction to the White House's democracy promotion agenda, comments Emin Huseynov, CEO of IRFS.

"It looks like a U.S. delegation has missed a golden opportunity to send a message of solidarity to civil society in Azerbaijan – we are particularly dismayed that out of ten sessions [at] the meeting, no single hour is allocated for [the] discussion of Azerbaijan's human right situation, which is alarming", Huseynov said.

As the ruling regime presents itself and the country as stable to international partners in an attempt to attract investors, countries which have economic and political relations to Azerbaijan should put more pressure on the government to follow international commitments, as well as to guarantee freedom of speech.

In this light, the U.S.-Azerbaijan Convention, presented as "yet another opportunity to discuss and expand the strong relationship between two nations based on shared interests and mutual respect" must highlight that better U.S-Azerbaijan relations first of all depend on respect for human rights and the rule of law.

The two countries cooperate on energy and security, but relations could and should be improved in the areas of democracy and human rights.

In this light, IRFS is dismayed that the U.S. delegation plays nice with Azerbaijani authorities amid a mounting clampdown on the U.S. media and human rights organizations.

Less than three months ago, Presidential Administration Head Ramiz Mehdiyev called National Democratic Institute (NDI) and other U.S. organizations threats to national security, and recommended that they be shut down for interfering in Azerbaijani politics.

Another example is persistent campaigns of intimidation against the Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) journalists, in retaliation for their reporting.

The official website of the U.S.-Azerbaijan Convention presents Azerbaijan as a great contributor to the global energy security describing its "rapid transformation from a young country into a regional leader and a reliable actor of the international community, promoting peace and stability, developing the Eurasian energy and transport corridor while integrating into the European and Euro-Atlantic structures".

IRFS believes that Azerbaijan must respect universal values of democracy and human rights in practice for there to be any stable system of security. If common values – aside from common interests – fail to be respected, the security and development will simply be a façade”, said Emin Huseynov.

The Azerbaijani government is failing to fulfill its obligations to guarantee freedom of expression undertaken before the European Union (as part of the EU-Azerbaijan European Neighborhood Policy Action Plan), OSCE, the Council of Europe, and the UN Security Council.

Since Ilham Aliyev accepted his first term, there has been an unprecedented deterioration in the human rights situation in the country. Hundreds of critics of Aliyev regime have been detained, ill-treated and convicted in unfair trials. Critical NGOs, civil society activists and journalists face continuing harassment.

The regime is evaluated as highly corrupt. Transparency International ranked Azerbaijan 139th out of 176 countries, number one being the least corrupt country.

In 2005, Azerbaijan ratified the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, thereby undertaking the obligation to take measures to enhance transparency in public administration.

Furthermore, Azerbaijan is a participating state in the Open Governance Partnership (OGP), and adopted a national action plan on OGP in September 2012. But instead of taking steps towards open governance, the government adopted a series of regressive amendments to the law on the right to obtain information, the law on the state registration of legal entities, and the law on commercial secrets. From now on, it will be difficult for journalists to investigate instances of corruption, as they may face punishment under these new amendments.

In the light of above-mentioned, IRFS expresses its regret over U.S. delegation's unwillingness to confront Azerbaijan on human rights issues. IRFS fears that if the U.S-Azerbaijan Convention avoids any discussion of Azerbaijan's human rights record, it may further bolster the regime's confidence, leading it to commit rights abuses with more impunity and less restraint.

IRFS calls on the U.S. to consider human rights in any actions it takes in the name of energy security, regional security or countering terrorism.

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