Russia’s appalling human rights situation, with an estimated 300-plus political prisoners, receives a good deal of attention. The corrupt and abusive regime in Azerbaijan, however, largely escapes scrutiny. One reason is the use of energy revenues to buy politicians and supporters in the West. Another is that President Ilham Aliyev (who inherited his job from his late father, Haidar) portrays Azerbaijan as a moderate Muslim-dominated (but religiously tolerant) country, next door to Iran, with geopolitical importance to the West. Whereas the West has sanctioned the “last dictator in Europe,” Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, as well as Russian human-rights abusers, Aliyev incurs no such penalties. Western countries welcome the release of political prisoners, when they should be reminding the regime that these brave people should never have been locked up in the first place.

The result is a less charming version of Groundhog Day: the regime detains an opposition political figure (or investigative journalist, or young blogger) and prosecutes them on trumped-up charges. Following rigged judicial proceedings, the person is sent to prison, and their family and friends are harassed by the police. As word gets out external “pressure” (quiet diplomacy) builds until the regime decides it needs to restock its declining balance of goodwill, resulting in releases from prison—and plaudits from Western embassies and human rights institutions, such as this U.S. Embassy statement in late April:

The United States Embassy in Azerbaijan welcomes the Supreme Court’s decision to acquit Chairperson of the Republican Alternative Party Ilgar Mammadov, in accordance with the European Court of Human Rights 2017 ruling. The Embassy also welcomes the acquittal of human rights defender Rasul Jafarov and would welcome further positive steps, such as ending the intimidation and detention of journalists, civil society activists, and members of the political opposition who exercise their freedom of expression. We remain open to continued dialogue and engagement on these and other issues for the benefit of both our peoples.”

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Aliyev releases several political prisoners one day and arrests new ones the next. The Embassy and State Department surely know this — the statement above acknowledges ongoing “intimidation and detention of journalists, civil society activists, and members of the political opposition.” Yes, it is good for those imprisoned for political reasons to be let out of jail, but no, the U.S. government should not be “welcoming” such releases, especially when the Embassy and State Department say little when new arrests occur – seemingly waiting for the pressure to build before acting. For example, another opposition figure, Aqil Humbatov, was detained by police a day after he was released from a psychiatric clinic where he was held against his will for almost three days. The U.S. Embassy said nothing about this action. The opposition party member Niyamaddin Ahmadov was recently arrested and placed in pre-trial detention for “financing terrorism.”

Making matters worse, Azerbaijani authorities are exploiting the pandemic to arrest government critics. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), authorities recently “have sentenced at least six activists and a pro-opposition journalist to detention for between 10 and 30 days on spurious charges including breaking lockdown rules or disobeying police orders.” Most of those arrested had slammed conditions in government-run quarantine centers and the government’s anemic response to the public health crisis.

Azerbaijan is not the only such offender. Still, the authorities’ actions in the past two months intensify a pattern of behavior we have seen for more than two decades. The U.S. and its Western allies should be pressing for the release of political prisoners everywhere, especially these days, when being sent to jail could endanger the lives of these innocent individuals. The only time the U.S. Embassy in Baku and the State Department in Washington should be welcoming developments in Azerbaijan is when the regime stops mistreating its citizens. For good.

Richard Kauzlarich, distinguished visiting professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, served as U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan and Bosnia and Herzegovina. David J. Kramer, an assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor in the George W. Bush administration, is a Senior Fellow at Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs.

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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