WASHINGTON -- The oil-rich nation of Azerbaijan, eagerly courted by the Bush administration, is suffering its worst repression since it became an independent state--after the Soviet collapse more than a decade ago--according to a new report released today by New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The 55-page report, "Crushing Dissent: Repression Violence and Azerbaijan's Elections," details hundreds of arbitrary arrests, widespread beatings and torture, and politically motivated firings of opposition activists and supporters following October 15 presidential elections widely denounced as unfair and fraudulent by Western and other observers.
The elections confirmed Ilham Aliev as the nation's new ruler. He is the son of Heidar Aliev, a former top KGB official and Kremlin adviser, who became president two years after Azerbaijan became independent in 1991. The elder Aliev died last month while receiving medical treatment in the United States.
Rumsfeld personally congratulated the younger Aliev on his election victory...
Washington has been interested in Azerbaijan as a major future supplier of oil for the past decade.
"Azerbaijan is experiencing its gravest human rights crisis of the past ten years," said Rachel Denber, acting director of HRW's Europe and Central Asia Division. "The government must take immediate steps to end the repression."
The report, based on hundreds of interviews with victims and witnesses in 13 towns and cities during and immediately after the elections and subsequent testimonies and press reports, found that repression has only intensified over the last several months.
It also accused the U.S. and other western governments of responding to the elections and the crackdown that followed them by sending muted and contradictory messages, capped by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's visit last month. Rumsfeld personally congratulated the younger Aliev on his election victory, but otherwise refused to make any comment on the political situation.
"The international community needs to take a strong and consistent stance against the rising tide of abuse," said Denber. "In light of President Bush's recent statements on democracy in neighboring countries in the Middle East, U.S. inaction on Azerbaijan is particularly troubling."
Despite its vast oil wealth, Azerbaijan remains a poor country with an annual per capita income well below US$4,000, and about half the population living below the poverty line. The country lost part a key part of its territory, Nagorno-Karabakh, in a fierce conflict with neighboring Armenia in the early 1990s that was suspended by a cease-fire in 1994 but has yet to be fully resolved.
Corruption under the Alievs has reportedly been rampant, particularly with the investment of billions of dollars by foreign oil companies eager to exploit the country's energy resources, found primarily in and around the capital, Baku, and beneath Azerbaijan's territorial waters in the Caspian Sea.
Washington has been interested in Azerbaijan as a major future supplier of oil for the past decade. It has played a leading role in promoting the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline that will carry oil from the Caspian through Azerbaijan and Georgia to Turkey's easternmost Mediterranean port, a controversial project designed to ensure to circumvent Russia and Iran, even though using existing grids would be a much cheaper transport method.
Azerbaijan was quick to offer assistance to Washington after the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, and military ties between the two nations have grown steadily. Beginning in 2002, Bush waived a ban on security assistance to Azerbaijan that was first imposed during its war with Armenia.
Indeed, Rumsfeld's recent trip there was aimed at intensifying military cooperation and assessing Baku's willingness to host U.S. military facilities. Washington has also expressed interest in providing Azerbaijan with training and equipment, including a Coast Guard cutter, to permit its navy to patrol its waters.
But some analysts say the growing coziness with the Aliev government carries serious risks, particularly if repression and corruption are not soon curbed. The fact that it had to resort to fraud to ensure its election victory, according to this view, suggests that the government is deeply unpopular and could be destabilized.
"A failure to fully promote democracy will ensure that the profits from oil production will end up in the Swiss bank accounts of corrupt leaders and government officials," warned Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA) in a recent article in which he argued that Washington faces similar challenges throughout the Caucasus region. Some days later, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze was ousted in a popular uprising.
While the Georgian crisis was resolved in a free election swept by a pro-U.S. opposition, the October election in Azerbaijan was anything but free, according to HRW and other independent analysts.
HRW found that the government prevented many opposition candidates from campaigning effectively--often through police brutality, arbitrary arrests, and intimidation--during the election campaign. On election day it carried out a well-organized campaign of fraud to ensure victory for Ilham Aliev with some 75 percent of the official vote. The fact that the fraud was carried out in front of the largest election-monitoring team ever deployed to Azerbaijan only increased the frustration of both the opposition and the observers.
Immediately after the election, protest demonstrations were met by "brutal and excessive force" carried out by the police, as a result of which at least 300 protestors suffered serious injuries and one was killed. Azerbaijani authorities have so far refused to carry out an investigation of the police violence, let alone punish any of the security forces involved.
In the weeks following the election, the authorities used the violence as a pretext for rounding up nearly 1,000 people--among them, opposition leaders and activists, activists of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) perceived as supporting the opposition, journalists, and election officials and observers who challenged the fraud. Those detained routinely suffered beatings by police, while opposition leaders held at the Organized Crime Unit of the Interior Ministry were tortured by electric shock, severe beating, and threats that they would be raped.
As of last week, more than 100 detainees remain in custody and, if convicted of various crimes with which they have been charged, may face up to 12 years in prison. More than 100 opposition supporters and their family members have been fired from their jobs, while opposition activists throughout the country are subject to constant harassment by the policy.
"The government of Azerbaijan is attempting to crush the opposition with few attempts to hide it," charges the HRW report, which calls on the government to immediately release all of those detained for political reasons and thoroughly investigate acts of torture and other official misconduct. But it stressed that the role of the international community, particularly Western powers, could play a critical role.
Next Tuesday, the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly, is scheduled to debate Azerbaijan's compliance the Council's human rights requirements--an opportunity, according to HRW for European governments to express stronger concern. "The Assembly needs to adopt a strong resolution making clear that Azerbaijan's credentials are at risk unless the government remedies the situation," said Denber. Azerbaijan was admitted to the Council in February, 2001.
Washington also needs to convey a clearer message, according to HRW, which recognized the Aliev's election victory, even as U.S. observers sent by the administration denounced them as a "sham."
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