Lobbyist’s Call for West to Champion Azerbaijan is Deceitful and Dangerous

When I saw former Rep. Dan Burton’s column about wonderful Azerbaijan in the Washington Times today, I wanted to read it right away to my friend Khadija Ismayilova, a journalist for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Baku. But I couldn’t.

That same Azerbaijan government Rep. Burton praises as so tolerant and devoted to democracy imprisoned her two months ago.

They ransacked her office and scoffed at protests by journalists and human rights defenders globally to release her. They are keeping her behind bars even though the charge against her is crazy – inciting an acquaintance to suicide – and even though the acquaintance didn’t commit suicide and says the charge is wrong.

This isn’t the first attack against journalists by a government Rep. Burton says shares our democratic values. It is far from an isolated incident. The Committee to Protect Journalists tracks 10 journalists in Azerbaijan detention. It isn’t even the first time the government has come after my friend. A couple of years ago a government website carried photos of Ismayilova and her boyfriend taken inside her apartment by a planted camera. In Muslim Azerbaijan sex outside of marriage is considered scandalous, and the extortionist attempt to quiet her was plain.

Ismayilova’s real offense, you see, has been exposing the corrupt and disgusting behavior of President Ilham Aliyev, the head of state that Rep. Burton would have the U.S. embrace.

He and his family have gorged on businesses and projects the government has promoted, at the expense and well being of its citizens. Ismayilova has traced the hidden business holdings of Aliyev’s daughters and the illegal political behavior of his First Lady. One Ismayilova story detailed a rapacious, environmentally destructive gold mine operation – connected to the First Family – that had robbed poor rural Azerbaijanis of their drinking water. This might not be the best example of the “environmental preservation and equality” Rep. Burton so praises.

But it would be surprising if Rep. Burton did not know about Ismayilova. Or about the top-level graft and corruption. Or the gold mine. He is, after all – though he does not mention this in his column – chairman of the Azerbaijan America Alliance.

Some of the other things this paid lobbyist didn’t tell you about the country he wants us to enfold in a warm hug:

Yes, the U.S. should take a keen interest in Azerbaijan. It does indeed occupy a strategic place in the post-Soviet realm near Afghanistan and Iran.

Oh, and there is oil, lots and lots of oil, in Azerbaijan, which Rep. Burton inexplicably also failed to mention.

So, our interests are tied up in this obscure Caucasian nation. We should be involved – but not as friends of the current regime.

American aid ought to be on the side of democracy, freedom, and the Azeri people. It must be linked to reforms, greater transparency and, immediately, to the release of Khadija Ismayilova.

Shame on you Rep. Burton for penning a false and deceitful column.

Rosemary Armao is an associate professor of Journalism/Communication at the State University of New York at Albany and a long time editor for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project based in southeast Europe.

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