BY ROUBEN KRIKOURIAN
WASHINGTON—Representatives of the Azerbaijani government on Tuesday defended their country’s human rights record against criticisms from U.S. officials and Azeri opposition party members at a hearing organized by the congressional Commission on Security and Co-operation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission).
The hearing was attended by Armenian National Committee of America 2013 Leo Sarkisian intern Knarik Gasparyan.
In the hearings, senior U.S. officials and members of Azerbaijani opposition parties condemned the Azerbaijani government’s undemocratic policies and steady advancement toward increased authoritarianism and expressed concern about the country’s upcoming elections.
Senior State Department Advisor Dr. Paul M. Carter, addressing the human rights record of Azerbaijan, opened his statements by saying that the day’s hearing was not about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, but about Azerbaijan’s human rights record.
Carter named intimidation, arrest and persecution of journalists and peaceful political activists and legal restrictions on assembly, the Internet, demonstrations and media as some of the most disconcerting policies of the Azerbaijani government. He also emphasized U.S. distress at the shutting down of the Free Thought University, which was initially sponsored by the U.S. government.
Noting that Azerbaijan’s previous elections did not meet OSCE standards, Carter said, “We want a greater respect for human rights and democratic values.”
Largely echoing the concerns expressed by Carter, State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Thomas Melia explained that data suggests Azerbaijan does not respect human rights, citing numerous cases of detentions of peaceful activists and political dissidents.
Azerbaijani Ambassador to the United States Elin Suleymanov defied the criticisms against his government, reminding the U.S. officials that Azerbaijan is a strategic partner in energy and security.
Citing statements delivered to Congress by the Armenian-American lobby, Suleymanov complained that Armenians shouldn’t speak on Azerbaijan’s democratic status and pointed a finger at the attempted assassination of a presidential candidate in Armenia’s most recent election.
Following in Suleymanov’s steps, Samad Seyidov, Head of the Azerbaijani Parliament’s International and Inter-Parliamentary Relations Committee, ranted that “the real problem is our neighbor, the real troubled partner is Armenia, where human rights are endangered.”
“If we are talking about Human Rights violations, we should talk about Nagorno-Karabakh,” Seyidov added, saying that he sees his government not as authoritarian but as an increasingly important participant in the region.
Carter earlier specified, “We are not here to discuss Nagorno-Karabakh, but the decline of democratic values in Azerbaijan.”
Eldar Namazov, the leader of the National Council of Democratic Forces of Azerbaijan opposition party, disputed the government representatives’ dismissals of criticisms, noting that two members of his party were arrested just a day before, while preparing documents for the very hearing at which he was present.
No explanation was given by the Azerbaijani government representatives as to how Armenia’s quantifiably better human rights record and role in the Karabakh conflict had any bearing on Azerbaijan’s failure to provide basic human rights and free elections to its citizens.
Neither was there an explanation provided for the mistreatment of the Azerbaijani author Akram Aylisli, who, along with his family, faced enormous abuse earlier this year after writing a novel, titled Stone Dreams, which spoke sympathetically of Armenians.