Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has canceled a meeting with the European Parliament president in Brussels, where he held talks with EU officials on issues including a new partnership agreement between Baku and the European Union.
Aliyev cancelled a meeting with Antonio Tajani, the president of the European Parliament, which hosted an event on "continued human rights violations in Azerbaijan."
The event's panel included Emin Milli from Meydan TV and RFE/RL journalist Khadija Ismayilova.
Ismayilova was arrested in December 2014 and subsequently spent 17 months in Azerbaijani prisons after being convicted of "illegal entrepreneurship" and other charges. Her supporters said the case was the government's revenge for reporting on corruption involving Aliyev and his family members. She was released in May 2016.
Aliyev did meet with European Council President Donald Tusk, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, and other top EU officials on February 6.
A new framework agreement for EU and Azerbaijan ties being discussed would replace the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which came into force in 1999, and would guide relations in trade and investment as well as economic, legislative, and cultural cooperation.
Speaking at a joint news briefing with Tusk after their meeting in Brussels, Aliyev praised what he called "a new chapter in our cooperation."
"I wish success to the negotiators and hope that they will not lose [any] time starting immediately tomorrow and soon will present a document, which will determine a strategic cooperation between us for many years to come," Aliyev said.
Tusk, meanwhile, said that EU-Azerbaijani relations "go beyond energy and trade" and that he was “very happy” to announce that negotiations on a new agreement between the two sides would be launched on February 7.
"We want to upgrade our relationship and develop its full potential through a new bilateral agreement," he said.
Tusk added that, during his talks with Aliyev, he "stressed the importance attached to human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of expression."
"The EU believes that an open society is the best guarantee for long-term stability and prosperity. We look forward to continuing to work as a partners on these issues," he told reporters.
Ahead of Aliyev's visit, 76 human rights organizations signed a joint letter urging EU leaders to use the trip to insist that the president "commits to concrete, lasting human rights reforms in Azerbaijan."
In a February 6 statement, Human Rights Watch said the Azerbaijani government has made "concerted efforts" in recent years to "restrict independent activism, critical journalism, and opposition political activity by imprisoning and harassing many activists, prominent human rights defenders, and journalists."
"Draconian laws and regulations impede the operation of independent groups and their ability to secure funding," it added.
Aliyev also met with Maros Sefcovic, the EU energy minister, to discuss the Southern Gas Corridor pipeline project.
An initiative of the European Commission, the project would bring natural gas from the Caspian Sea region to Europe through a series of pipelines that would go from Azerbaijan through Georgia, Turkey, Greece, Albania, and Italy, reducing Europe's dependence on Russian-based energy.
Earlier, Aliyev met with Belgian King Philippe at the royal palace in Brussels.
With reporting by RFE/RL's Rikard Jozwiak in Brussels, Commonspace.eu, and apa.az