US Urges Azerbaijan to Free Opposition Prisoners

WASHINGTON (Reuters)–Under fire itself for holding prisoners without charge–Washington on Wednesday urged Azerbaijan to charge or free opposition inmates seized after disputed elections in October in the former Soviet republic.

"We have urged the government of Azerbaijan to expedite the investigations,” State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told reporters. "We believe the authorities should either charge those arrested with crimes and present the evidence against them or release them.”

In an opposition crackdown Azeri authorities have arrested scores of people since the presidential elections when Ilham Aliyev succeeded his ailing father Haydar in a vote the West said was marred by cheating and intimidation.

Last month Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on a visit to Azerbaijan that ties with the oil-rich Central Asian country would grow despite the fraud accusations. The United States has hoped Azerbaijan could provide an alternative to the volatile Gulf for energy supplies.

Washington regularly criticizes countries for poor democratic credentials–but rights groups say the US detention without charge of prisoners caught in the Afghanistan war and held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba has hurt its credibility on such issues.


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