Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to our first hearing on Azerbaijan since May 2000. Earlier this year we held hearings after elections in Georgia and Armenia, where violence either preceded or followed the vote. We are not waiting until after Azerbaijan’s presidential election in October because Congress will probably go out of session for the year in September. Rather than wait until 2009, I decided to proceed at this juncture.
I would also like to point out – though I hardly think it is necessary -- that the Helsinki Commission does not only scrutinize foreign countries. We also examine U.S. compliance. During this Congress, we have held two hearings on the status and treatment of detainees at Guantanamo, which took a very critical look at U.S. observance of human rights standards. Just last week, we held a briefing on the medical evidence of torture by U.S. personnel.
One more thing: we do not intend today to focus on Nagorno-Karabakh. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried recently testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on the so-called frozen conflicts. And at our hearing on Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh received considerable attention from Deputy Assistant Secretary Matthew Bryza, who is directly charged with negotiating an end to that dispute.
To turn now to the subject of our hearing -- human rights and democratization in Azerbaijan -- let me say, having been there several times, that I appreciate the importance of Baku’s strategic relationship with the United States. Azerbaijan has cooperated closely with the United States on anti-terrorism matters. As a producer of oil and gas which is transported to Western markets through Georgia, Azerbaijan plays a pivotal role in diversifying sources of energy.
Still, there are serious human rights concerns in Azerbaijan. These have been laid out in the annual reports by the State Department and Freedom House. The Council of Europe, which Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia all joined in 2002, also issues regular reports on all three countries, focusing on human rights problems, and I commend them to your attention.
Of particular concern is the situation of journalists. In December 2007, Miklos Haraszti, the OSCE’s Representative on Freedom of the Media, said more journalists were imprisoned in Azerbaijan than in any other OSCE member state. Later that month, President Aliev amnestied five journalists. Still, three remain in jail -- or four, depending whom you ask.
The jailed journalists bring us to the issue of political prisoners. I introduced a resolution a year ago which focused on the case of Farhad Aliev and repression of journalists. While even Azerbaijani human rights groups disagree about who should be considered a political prisoner and how many there are, they do maintain there are people in jail for their political beliefs or activity. The Council of Europe has been wrestling with this problem for years and we intend to question our witnesses about it as well.
Finally, an important presidential contest is coming up in October. I have a special interest in that topic, having headed the OSCE’s International Observation Mission for Azerbaijan’s parliamentary election in 2005. The OSCE’s Warsaw-based Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights has issued a pre-election report on conditions in Azerbaijan. I understand that Baku has not accepted several recommendations of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission.
I hope that decision will be reconsidered and that Azerbaijan’s October election will register clear progress over 2005. I look forward to hearing from our witnesses on this and the other issues under discussion today.