WASHINGTON -- A U.S. lawmaker has criticized U.S. diplomats in Baku for allegedly declining to assist an Azerbaijani rights activist who claims he is the victim of political persecution and is currently being sheltered by Swiss diplomats in Azerbaijan’s capital.
U.S. Representative Dana Rohrabacher (Republican-California) accused U.S. officials in Baku of lacking courage for purportedly failing to assist activist Emin Huseynov, who is married to a U.S. citizen, when he reportedly appealed to them for help last year.
“When it became clear that he was wanted by the authorities, he asked the United States' embassy for help,” Rohrabacher told a February 12 congressional subcommittee hearing.
“Our embassy turned him away. But he was granted safe haven in the Swiss Embassy, where he is today. And again, I guess it’s a sad day when the Swiss are more courageous than the Americans,” he added.
A February 11 report by Foreign Policy claimed that Huseynov initially contacted the U.S. Embassy in Baku for help before seeking refuge in the Swiss Embassy, where he has remained since August.
Swiss public television revealed earlier on February 11 that the Swiss Embassy in Baku has been harboring Huseynov since August. The report said the activist pretended to be a Swiss national at the entrance of the compound to avoid being detained by the police.
A U.S. State Department official told RFE/RL on February 12 that American officials “have been engaged in quiet diplomacy on Emin Huseynov’s behalf” and have “urged” Azerbaijan’s government to allow him to depart the country “safely and expeditiously.”
“We will continue to seek opportunities to raise this case with senior Azerbaijani officials,” the official said on customary condition of anonymity.
The official added that the United States “has been a long-standing supporter of Mr. Huseynov and his important civil society work” and remains “deeply troubled about his situation.”
“Our actions have reflected that concern, as have those of other partners and allies,” the official said.
Huseynov, a prominent critic of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, is the founder and head of the Baku-based Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, a nongovernmental organization that has repeatedly accused Aliyev’s government of restricting free speech.
He claimed in 2008 that he was beaten by police officers in Baku who threatened to kill him and that he was hospitalized due to injuries he sustained in the incident. Amnesty International subsequently condemned authorities’ treatment of him.
Azerbaijani authorities have arrested and jailed numerous rights activists, journalists, and government critics over the past year in what Western officials have called a troubling crackdown on civil liberties.
In its February 11 report, Foreign Policy said Huseynov decided to seek the assistance of a foreign embassy in Baku because he feared he would be arrested.
Huseynov’s wife, U.S. citizen Sarah Paulsworth, was present at the February 12 subcommittee hearing on Azerbaijan at which Rohrabacher criticized the U.S. embassy for allegedly declining to shelter the activist.
Paulsworth declined to comment for this report.
Earlier in the day, U.S. Representative Chris Smith, urged Aliyev to let Huseynov out of the country.
“I appeal to President Aliyev to immediately allow Mr. Huseynov to leave the Swiss Embassy and give him safe passage out of Azerbaijan,” Smith, chairman of the Helsinki Commission, said in a February 12 statement.
Smith praised Huseynov for working “tirelessly to defend journalists and promote media freedom in Azerbaijan.”
“Sadly, the persecution of Mr. Huseynov is part of a larger crackdown on human rights activists -- I have met some of their family members and friends, and join my voice to those calling for their release,” he added.
Azerbaijani officials have consistently dismissed accusations by Western officials and activists that Baku is repressing free speech and persecuting government critics.
The Baku-based news agency APA reported on February 12 that prosecutors ordered Huseynov to be placed in pretrial detention and “declared him wanted” on August 19, the day after he was granted protection at the Swiss Embassy.
APA cited Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Hikmet Hajiyev as saying that prosecutors accuse Huseynov of tax evasion and engaging in illegal business connected to “unregistered” grants.
Hajiyev said Huseynov received “several investigation summons” beginning July 7 but “went into hiding at the embassy of the Swiss Confederation in Azerbaijan,” APA reported.
Switzerland’s Federal Department of Foreign Affairs confirmed to APA that an Azerbaijani national is currently at the Swiss Embassy in Baku.
Nina Ognianova, the Europe and Central Asia Program coordinator for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, called on Baku to halt a criminal investigation of Huseynov and to “stop using spurious allegations to harass and silence its critics.”
"It is shameful for Azerbaijan that a journalist and rights defender has been forced to seek sanctuary on foreign soil," Ognianova said in a February 12 statement.
With reporting by apa.az and Foreign Policy