US Must Sanction Officials Behind Human Rights Abuses in Azerbaijan, says NGO Open Letter

Azerbaijani officials linked to human rights abuses should be subject to targeted sanctions by the United States, according to an open letter signed by a group of non-governmental organizations, former diplomats and activists.

KhadijaKhadija IsmayilovaThe letter, addressed to US Secretary of State John Kerry and published by Freedom House, calls for concrete measures in place of statements of concern about from Western leaders.

It argues that stronger ties between West and the government of Azerbaijan should only be pursued if the state turns its back on authoritarian practices. It urges Secretary Kerry to impose visa bans and freeze the assets of those responsible for the country’s “deteriorating human rights situation”.

The letter points to the detentions and convictions of 34 human rights activists, journalists and members of civil society in Azerbaijan in 2014 alone. According to the letter, there are nearly 100 political prisoners in the country, twice as many as the combined total of Russia and Belarus.

One of those detained is Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty journalist Khadija Ismayilova, 38, who wrote exposés of corruption at the highest levels of power in Azerbaijan, before her arrest in December on charges that are widely believed to be politically motivated. Ismayilova is still in detention, awaiting trial.

Signatories include former US ambassador to Turkey, Morton Abramowitz, along with members of Azerbaijani-Americans for Democracy (AZAD) and Reporters without Borders, as well as Irena Lasota, president of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe.

The letter said: “For years, Azerbaijan’s importance as an energy supplier and partner on security and counter-terrorism has outweighed attention to its deplorable human rights record.”

The call to action comes just a few days after Washington’s state senate passed a resolution stating that: “It is critical for the United States of America to further strengthen relations with its allies, such as Azerbaijan, to advance our common interests, presently and in the future.”

The resolution specifically mentions multi-billion dollar contracts that Azerbaijan has signed with Washington-based companies such as Boeing and Microsoft, “[creating] thousands of new American jobs”.

In late January 2015, three US federal legislators expressed their friendship with the Azerbaijani state government through a series of enthusiastic articles in the Washington Times that urged a closer relationship between the US and Azerbaijan. They did not mention the increasing number of political prisoners held in Azerbaijan.