Azerbaijan: Did Prisoner Releases Help Secure Washington’s Welcome?

by Giorgi Lomsadze

Azerbaijan was welcomed at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC on March 30 as an international energy security and counterterrorism asset, while the country’s repressive ways gained only a faint mention.  

US Secretary of State John Kerry thanked President Ilham Aliyev for making it to the March 31-April 1 summit and praised Azerbaijan’s role in helping Europe meet its energy needs. “Azerbaijan is located in a complex region right now and I think President Aliyev has been very studious and thoughtful about how to respond to some of those needs, particularly with his leadership on the Southern Gas Corridor,” Kerry said.

In his public remarks, Kerry skipped the controversial matter of Azerbaijan’s political prisoners. Only a post-meeting press release took note of Azerbaijan’s “recent positive steps” and urged “further progress” on the human-rights front.

These positive steps include the March 17 pardon of 14 individuals described by human rights watchdogs as political prisoners. As the Nuclear Security Summit approached, widely respected human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev, in prison for nearly a year, was freed when the Azerbaijani Supreme Court replaced his 7.5-year sentence for alleged illegal business activities, abuse of power and tax evasion (a familiar trio) with a suspended five-year sentence. Amnesty International described the move as “long overdue steps” toward correcting the “injustice” done to the lawyer and “all remaining prisoners of conscience.”

Some observers think that the prison doors are opening because Aliyev needs to cushion Western criticism amidst an economic squeeze. Low prices for oil, a commodity that helps support Aliyev’s rule, led to an unusually bold display of public anger earlier this year over Azerbaijan’s weakened economy and two-time depreciated currency.

Azerbaijan has denied, though, that it is seeking international financial assistance, and still sticks to vanity projects, such as plans to host a Formula One race this summer in the capital, Baku. Its lackluster record on the civil-rights front did not prevent the World Bank on March 28 from granting Azerbaijan an additional, $140-million loan for highway construction.

Other calculations could be in mind, too. The confrontation over Syria between Russia and NATO member Turkey has threatened regional security and the South Caucasus countries were pressured to take sides.

“It looks like [Aliyev] needs the West a bit more and Russia and Turkey a bit less at the moment and keeping pro-Western liberal critics in jail no longer seems such a good idea,” commented Thomas de Waal, South Caucasus analyst and Senior Associate Fellow with Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

But Aliyev’s invitation to the Nuclear Security Summit came in January, long before any release of prisoners.

Azerbaijani prisons still hold pro-Western liberal critics, most notably investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, a former employee of US-government-funded RFE/RL. The Supreme Court plans to hear a complaint about the dismissed appeal of her case, Interfax reported this week. Intigam Aliyev’s release has sparked some Azerbaijani journalists to hope that the court will free Ismayilova as well.

But Baku has not yet kicked the habit of arresting independent thinkers. Just as Aliyev was headed to Washington, writer Akram Aylisli was briefly detained in the Baku airport and prevented from travelling to Italy for a literary festival.

Aylisli ran afoul of the political establishment because of his 2013 novel Stone Dreams, which did not follow the official line on the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over breakaway Nagorno Karabakh. He was then stripped of his state pension and the title of national writer. Hafiz Hajiyev, leader of the Modern Musavat Party, went so far as to offer a financial reward to anyone who would cut off the writer’s ears.

Human-rights activists, both Azerbaijani and foreign, caution Western leaders not to be taken in by Aliyev’s attempts to polish his image. Pressure should be kept on Baku until all controversially arrested individuals are freed, Human Rights Watch advised.

The caveat is, critics complain, that when Western governments think of Azerbaijan, they tend to think first of a big gas pipeline, and only later of a repressive government.

So far, no outward sign at the Nuclear Security Summit that that tradition has changed.

Reprinted, with permission, from EurasiaNet. Photo of Intigam Aliyev.

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