Rights Group Accuses Azerbaijan of Abuses

TBILISI (Reuters)–A leading US-based watchdog group has slammed Azerbaijan’s government for what it calls a worsening human rights situation there and called for its application to the Council of Europe to be suspended.

Human Rights Watch outlined its concerns in a letter to the council–a club which sets the standards for democracy in Europe.

"The recent documentation we have gathered from field investigations…is alarming," said the letter–made available to Reuters by HWR’s Caucasus office in the Georgian capital Tbilisi.

"The developmen’s point to the government’s blatant bad faith in its work with the Council of Europe…and to the hollowness of its commitment to the rule of law."

HWR said it was particularly concerned about the apparent impunity of police and judiciary officials–arbitrary law enforcement–the adoption of laws hindering fair elections and restrictions on the media and freedom of association.

"Azerbaijan is failing to comply with many of its human rights obligations under international and domestic law and is falling far short of the reforms expected of it as an applicant for membership in the Council of Europe," the letter said.

President Haydar Aliyev–Azerbaijan’s Soviet Communist boss in the 1970s and 80s–has dominated Azeri political life since he returned to power in 1993 through the ballot box.

HRW said torture and physical abuse of people in police custody was widespread and had in some cases lead to deaths.

"We found credible cases of physical abuse so severe that they resulted in the deaths of detainees while in police custody and several cases of…investigators who beat suspects during questioning."

The group accused the Azeri authorities of tightening controls on the independent press over the last few months. Police searched the popular opposition daily Chag for weapons last week. None was found–but police carted away some computers and briefly detained several journalists.

Earlier this year–the government switched off local rebroadcasts of US-funded Radio Liberty because it said the station lacked a license. Aliyev allowed the station to go back on the air only after pressure from abroad mounted.

Aliyev is vying for a second five-year term in a presidential election scheduled for this autumn–but all of his main challengers have announced a boycott because of what they say are unfair election laws.

HRW said two controversial laws passed over the past two months could allow Aliyev to manipulate the election.

Particularly worrying–it said–was a law allowing Aliyev and his virtual rubber-stamp parliament to name all the members of the Central Elections Commission.

Azerbaijan is of intense interest internationally because of its big reserves of offshore Caspian Sea oil and gas–over which foreign firms have signed contracts worth investment of about $40 billion.

Aliyev has put great emphasis on bringing the mostly Moslem former Soviet republic of eight million into the Council of Europe and pressed a visiting delegation from the organization this month to speed approval of its membership.

Aliyev vows to use petrodollars to rebuild his army and reverse so-called Azeri losses in the Karabakh conflict–which have turned more than 700,000 people into refugees–if talks on a lasting settlement continue to founder.

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