Groups Urge US to Press Azerbaijan on Poor Rights Record

WASHINGTON–DC (AFP)–Rights groups and activists urged the US administration to pressure Azeri President Ilham Aliyev on his poor human rights record when he meets with President George W. Bush at the White House.

Several said that Aliyev’s official visit to Washington–his first since he was elected to succeed his father in 2003–will be seen as a litmus test for the Bush administration in how it addresses geopolitical interests in the region without sacrificing concerns about democracy. "Bush should raise the issue of human rights and democracy and make it very clear to President Aliyev that the promise of better relations with America hinges on Azerbaijan’s respect of human rights and the rule of law," Hajimurad Sadaddinov–head of the Azerbaijan Foundation for Development of Democracy and Protection of Human Rights–told a panel discussion in Washington.

Sadaddinov–who in 1996 was jailed for four years on charges of plotting to overthrow the government–said some 60 political prisoners are detained in Azerbaijan and the opposition is still muzzled.

One notable case is that of former economy minister Farhad Aliyev–who has been held in jail since last October on charges of plotting a coup. He is not related to the president.

Sadaddinov appealed to US policy makers to raise the case with Azerbaijan’s president. He said Farhad Aliyev had serious heart problems and risked dying in prison. The New York-based Human Rights Watch has also sent a letter to Bush urging him to press for concrete progress on Azerbaijan’s poor human rights record–which includes arbitrary detentions and torture–when he meets with Aliyev on Friday.

"This is a key moment for President Bush to take a principled stand on human rights and to clarify the administration’s expectations," said Holly Cartner–director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch.

Washington has come in for heavy criticism for hosting Aliyev–with some saying that the Bush administration was giving him undue legitimacy because of his country’s strategic location and its energy resources.

Azerbaijan–a mainly Muslim secular country located between Iran–Russia–and Armenia–sits on important oil and gas reserves that the United States hopes will help offset dependence on Russia.

US officials insist that Aliyev’s visit to Washington does not mean that democracy concerns are taking a backseat–and they said that rights issues would top the agenda during meetings with the 44-year-old leader.

Aliyev on Wednesday met with various representatives of rights groups in Washington but insisted during the meeting that there were no political prisoners in his country and played down reports of rights abuses.

"He was quite dismissive of all of our concerns," said Jane Buchanan of Human Rights Watch. She said she hoped the Bush administration would stand its ground with Aliyev and push for concrete results on human rights.

"The administration should not be seeking allies in security and energy fields that do not respect human rights and live up to the democratic principles that the US espouses and is trying to promote around the world," Buchanan said.

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