Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s habit of brutally silencing dissent may be finally catching up with him.
A new bill introduced in Congress last month would require the U.S. State Department to deny visas to senior members of Aliyev’s government until the country can prove it has ceased harassment of independent media and NGOs and made significant progress toward freeing its political prisoners.
Despite facing long odds, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015 marks a major turning point. For years, the United States has struggled to muster any real condemnation of Azerbaijan’s government, one of the most corrupt and repressive in the world. U.S. officials and lawmakers still routinely refer to their Azerbaijani counterparts as “friends” despite the fact that the former Soviet country’s latest crackdown has been accompanied by a general turn away from the West.
Or should we say partial turn. Azerbaijan wants to be at the table with Western nations when money is up for grabs, but it hasn’t acquired the same taste for values about human rights and dignity. This juxtaposition was perhaps most apparent earlier this year when the country hosted the inaugural European Games, a 17-day competition featuring 6,000 athletes from 50 countries. The capital city of Baku spared no expense to project a modern, glamorous image during the event–even flying in Lady Gaga for a surprise performance. For many people, it was a first glimpse of Azerbaijan.
But that glimpse was carefully choreographed. Foreign reporters who agreed to play by the government’s rules were rewarded with access to the games; others,including Guardian sports correspondent Owen Gibson, were banned from attending after calling out human rights abuses in the country.
What the cameras did not capture that night was the escape of Emin Huseynov, the founder of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, who fled Azerbaijan for Switzerland on the private plane of the Swiss foreign minister. Huseynov first sought refuge at the Swiss embassy ten months earlier after Azerbaijani authorities raided his office.
Other human rights advocates and journalists have not been as fortunate. Within a 10-day period in August 2014, Intigam Aliyev, Rasul Jafarov, and Leyla and Arif Yunus all were arrested. They were later subjected to speedy show trials resulting in lengthy prison sentences for crimes they did not commit. Leyla and Arif, both seriously ill, have recently been released to serve suspended sentences but still face charges of treason.
Employees of Meydan TV, whose founder reported receiving a high-level threat during the European Games, have been barred from leaving Azerbaijan, repeatedly questioned at the prosecutor’s office, and detained without cause. Their families have also faced pressure. Two brothers of editor Gunel Movlud are currently being held on bogus drug charges.
Most tragically, in August, Rasim Aliyev, a journalist and chairman of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, died after he was severely beaten by attackers. Although the assault was reportedly connected to a criticism Aliyev made of a soccer player on Facebook, Aliyev had previously experienced threats against his life. The attack was one of hundreds against Azerbaijan’s journalists in the past decade, including at least two other murders.
Quiet diplomacy from the United States and the European Union has failed to reverse Azerbaijan’s relentless pursuit of critics and civil society groups. The State Department called Leyla Yunus’ release earlier this month a “welcome” development and a “positive step.” Meanwhile, the deputy chairman of the opposition Popular Front Party, was arrested the day before, and the treason trial of dissident journalist Rauf Mirqadirov is still underway.
But perhaps President Aliyev’s luck is running out. In November, in an unprecedented step, the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, its Parliamentary Assembly, and the European Parliament all canceled monitoring missions to Azerbaijan to protest the irregularity of the country’s parliamentary elections.
Last month, Thorbjørn Jagland, secretary general of the Council of Europe, made a bold move of his own, announcing an inquiry into Azerbaijan’s implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights.
And on the same day, U.S. Congressman Chris Smith, chairman of the Helsinki Commission, introduced the Azerbaijan Democracy Act and held a hearing on the case of Khadija Ismayilova, one of the few journalists in Azerbaijan who dared to report on corruption among the country’s ruling elite. Ismayilova was arrested last year and is now serving a seven and a half-year prison sentence.
Ismayilova has kept up the pressure on her country even from behind bars. On the eve of the European Games, with the help of Sport for Rights, a coalition of international press freedom groups that recently published a report on Azerbaijan’s human rights record, she managed to get a letter out of jail to The New York Times.
“The truth is that Azerbaijan is in the midst of a human rights crisis. Things have never been worse,” she wrote, urging the international community: “Do not let the government of Azerbaijan distract your attention from its record of corruption and abuse.”
Maybe now the world is ready to listen.