BRUSSELS -- Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has denied there are any political prisoners in his country.
At a press conference in Brussels on June 21, RFE/RL correspondent Rikard Jozwiak asked Aliyev about the jailing of Azerbaijani political opposition leader Ilqar Mammadov and reports that Azerbaijani authorities were jamming foreign radio broadcasts and pressuring local media.
Aliyev said the question was based on "false information" or "prejudices."
"First of all, I'd like to say that none of my political opponents are in prison. This is absolutely wrong information," Aliyev said. "At the same time, I'd like to tell you that there are no political prisoners in Azerbaijan, if you read carefully the comments after the session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe this January, which rejected the report about political prisoners of Azerbaijan. I think that this chapter is closed."
Ilqar Mammadov was charged with organizing mass disorders during the unrest in the town of Ismayili last February. Mammadov, the chairman of the ReAL (Republican Alternative) movement, had earlier announced his intention to run for president in this October's election.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement on June 19 saying that "since March 2012, the authorities have arrested or convicted at least 22 political activists, journalists, social media bloggers, human rights defenders, and others who criticized the government. This year alone, people have been charged or convicted in 16 cases."
Aliyev also rejected claims Azerbaijani authorities are interfering with access to information from outside or inside Azerbaijan, saying, "we have a free Internet, and the number of Internet users in Azerbaijan is more than 70 percent and there is no censorship."
On June 20, RFE/RL said
it believed its satellite news programs to Azerbaijan had been repeatedly disrupted by an outside signal. The broadcaster said this could indicate a new level of "deliberate interference," in violation of international telecommunications regulations.
Standing alongside Aliyev on June 21, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso noted that while the rights situation in Azerbaijan might not totally meet European standards, the country's history needed to be taken into consideration.
"Azerbaijan was until some years ago part of the Soviet Union's totalitarian regime, where there was no freedom at all, so when you look at the situation today of Azerbaijan -- an independent sovereign country that we very much respect because of its independence and the situation where Azerbaijan was coming [from] -- we have to recognize, to be fair, huge, huge progress in that country," Barroso said.
"That does not mean that all the standards are met according to our perception and from our point of view. We have a very good exchange with President Aliyev and with, of course, our partners in Azerbaijan."
Cooperation on energy issues was a key topic at Aliyev's meeting with Barroso and at a meeting earlier in the day with European Council President Herman van Rompuy.
Aliyev and the European officials stressed Azerbaijan's role in helping ensure Europe's energy security with Barroso saying Azerbaijan could eventually supply more than 10 percent of the EU's energy needs.
The Aerbaijani president and the European officials also discussed the territorial dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Aliyev outlined what needs to be done in his news conference with Van Rompuy: "Azerbaijan is interested in the soonest resolution [of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict] based on the norms and principles of international law and the implementation of four United Nations resolutions demanding the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Armenian troops from the internationally recognized lands of Azerbaijan."
Nagorno-Karabakh is a mostly ethnic-Armenian-populated enclave surrounded by Azerbaijani territory. Armenia, which controls Nagorno-Karabakh and several surrounding districts, has been locked in a dispute with Azerbaijan for more than two decades over the region. Years of internationally mediated talks have failed to resolve the conflict.