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The increasing repression within the country has worried activists and some Western governments, and raised the specter of internal turmoil should simmering resentment toward elites who have enriched themselves boil over.

WASHINGTON -- Activists warn that Azerbaijan's government has stepped up repression of journalists, civil society activists, and human rights workers ahead of a key referendum, and urge the West to do more to confront Baku.

The oil-rich South Caucasus country has faced growing internal problems stemming from falling world oil prices in recent years. At the same time, longtime President Ilham Aliyev has pushed forward with a referendum scheduled for September 26 that will strengthen his authority, extend the length of presidential terms, and drop the minimum age for future presidential candidates.

Turkel Karimli, the son of jailed opposition leader Ali Karimli, told a U.S. congressional panel on September 15 that the referendum results were almost certain to be rigged, and there was a growing danger of civil unrest if the government continued to stifle dissent.

"A normal and competent government would have moved to introduce economic reforms to revitalize the public finances," Karimli told the bipartisan panel known as the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.

"But the corrupt and incompetent regime of Ilham Aliyev, facing...likely social unrest, has chosen to respond in the only way it knows -- more arrests, more oppression, more terror, false imprisonment, and the systematic plan to silence the last remaining free media outlets," he said.

"It is beyond a reasonable doubt that the upcoming reference vote will be completely rigged," he added.

Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist who was jailed for 17 months in what was widely seen as retribution for her work for RFE/RL and other media outlets, said Azerbaijan currently had 138 people in jail considered to be political prisoners. She said several were reporters who, like herself, have documented corrupt deals connected to the Aliyev family and other top government officials.

"The country has literally become a prison," she said, speaking via video conference from Azerbaijan, which she is currently barred from leaving after her release from prison in May.

"Those who expose corruption are punished more than those whose corruption are uncovered by journalists," Ismayilova said. "None of us broke any law, but we broke an unspoken rule of the regime -- we dare to tell the truth. What is the inconvenient truth that the government doesn't like? It's all about money, it's all about corruption."

Located on the western shore of the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan has major oil and gas reserves that are being developed jointly with major international companies. The mainly Shi'ite Muslim country has also been a supporter of the U.S.-led war on terrorism, and the fight against the radical Islamic State militants.

But the increasing repression within the country has worried activists and some Western governments, and raised the specter of internal turmoil should simmering resentment toward elites who have enriched themselves boil over.

Richard Kauzlarich, who served as U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan in the 1990s, told the commission that the United States and other Western countries should abandon "quiet diplomacy" -- raising human rights concerns discreetly -- and more actively confront the Aliyev government.

He urged Washington to consider recalling its ambassador in Baku, imposing asset freezes and visa bans for officials involved in repressing journalists and activists, and curtailing U.S. government financing deals through the Overseas Private Investment Corporation or the Export Import Bank that would benefit Azerbaijani companies.

"Quiet diplomacy has not worked. Quiet diplomacy has turned political prisoners into objects to be traded," he said.

"Active diplomacy is tough-love diplomacy, and а good relationship requires common values and confronting corruption, limits of freedom, and perpetuation of a Soviet-style command economy," he said.

Ismayilova warned that that Azerbaijan's internal problems could lead to an increasingly radicalized society, with dire consequences for the already tumultuous Caucasus region or elsewhere.

"Problems within Azerbaijan today could become problems for the United States tomorrow," she said. "The United States should care for us because the last thing we want to be is to become a problem for the rest of the world."

Akram Aylisli (pictured in 2013) is accused of assaulting and seriously injuring a border guard almost half a century his junior -- a claim the writer dismisses as "absurd."

An invitation to speak at an international literary festival in Italy has turned into an ongoing nightmare for Akram Aylisli, an esteemed Azerbaijani author who has endured persistent intimidation since he began criticizing his country's leadership in 2011.

Long honored by the state as a cherished cultural figure, the 78-year-old Aylisli has become a prominent target of what rights activists say is a growing government campaign to silence independent voices and stifle dissent.

On March 30, police at Baku's international airport stopped Aylisli from traveling to the Crossroads of Civilizations festival in Venice, accusing him of assaulting and seriously injuring a border guard almost half a century his junior -- a claim the writer dismisses as "absurd."

Authorities initially charged Aylisli with hooliganism, threatening the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize nominee with up to a year behind bars. But on September 6, the Prosecutor-General's Office revised the charge to "using violence against government representatives," a more serious charge that, considering the border guard's purported injuries, could lead to a seven-year prison sentence.

Investigators said they would summon Aylisli this week for further questioning, but as of September 15 they had not done so.

Aylisli denies the charges, calling them politically motivated retribution for his writing. "They have presented a fit, 30-year-old man who accuses me of using physical force against him, saying I punched him so hard that it caused internal injuries," Aylisli tells RFE/RL. "The allegations are just so poorly thought-out."

"All I did was tell them I was going to an international event with representatives from 20 countries," he said. "They deprived me of my right to travel abroad."

Contradicting Official Truths

Aylisli's troubles with President Ilham Aliyev's government began half a decade ago.

His pension and state awards were revoked after the publication in 2012 of his book Stone Dreams, whose depiction of massacres of ethnic Armenians in Azerbaijan during the late 1980s and early 1990s contradicted Baku's official narrative of events during the war over the breakaway of Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Aylisli's writings were removed from school curricula in the former Soviet republic, and his books have been burned at rallies in front of his apartment building in Baku.

He has been accused in parliament of treason and threatened by the leader of the pro-government Modern Musavat party, who offered a bounty equal to $13,000 for cutting off one of Aylisli's ears.

Aliyev's government portrays the backlash against Aylisli as a spontaneous, patriotic movement against a writer who betrayed the country.

But Alasgar Mammadli, a free-speech advocate at the Civil Society Platform, an NGO, says the government is encouraging Azerbaijanis to treat Aylisli as a kind of "persona non grata" as part of an "attack on freedom of expression."

"Nobody considers what happened at Baku airport to be legal, considering his age and status," Mammadli says. "It is obvious that he was artificially barred from leaving the country because of his writing."

Human Rights Watch has called on Aliyev's government to bring an end to the "hostile campaign of intimidation" against Aylisli, saying the state is "making a mockery out of its international obligations on freedom of expression."

An Earlier 'Betrayal'

Khadija Ismayilova, an RFE/RL journalist who spent 1 1/2 years in jail on financial-crimes charges widely seen as retaliation for her reports on government corruption, also believes Aylisli is the target of an intimidation campaign "orchestrated by the government."

"People who have never read any of his writings were forced to come and protest, burn his books, and so on. And the government presented it as if Akram Aylisli was writing against Azerbaijan's national interests and portraying Azerbaijanis as savages," Ismayilova says.

But Ismayilova, who is herself barred from leaving the Caspian Sea state under a court-ordered travel ban, says that "the retaliation was not for Stone Dreams."

She believes Aylisli is being punished for a 2011 novel, The Grand Traffic Jam, that she says portrays President Aliyev's late father and predecessor, Heidar Aliyev, as "a dictator with maniacal problems."

"Whatever has happened to Akram Aylisli since then, including these recent moves against him, is just a continuation of pressure and retaliation for what he wrote about Heidar Aliyev," Ismayilova said.

Before 2011, Aylisli publicly supported the government. He was awarded the title People's Writer and received Azerbaijan's highest state awards: the Medal of Honor and the Medal of Independence.

He also was a member of parliament from 2005 until 2010.

"Akram Aylisli is not like an ordinary Azerbaijani," Ismayilova says. "They've made it clear that if the government can do this to Akram Aylisli, it can be done to any writer. It's one of their tactics of intimidation and it works well."

The authorities are continuing to hold Aylisli's identification documents and enforce a travel ban during an investigation that his supporters fear could last years before any trial. Meanwhile, he lives with the knowledge that he could be taken into custody at any time.

Delaying the judicial process in politically motivated cases is "another one of the tactics the government uses against its critics," Ismayilova explains.

Literature 'Has Its Own Life'

Thomas de Waal, a Caucasus expert and senior associate at the Carnegie Europe think tank, calls Aylisli's writing courageous. "He wrote [Stone Dreams] not as a politician or a journalist, but as an artist and a writer," De Waal says. "He expressed his vision in an artistic work" that calls on Azerbaijani society to admit wrongdoings and accept responsibility.

In an interview, Aylisli says he has lived through many hardships "but what has been happening lately is more difficult than ever."

"I am not at fault for having a work that is accepted around the world differently than the way it is perceived in Azerbaijan," he says. "Literary works have their own destiny once they leave an author's hands. Our authorities, unfortunately, do not accept this fate."

Aylisli says his age and health problems make it unlikely he would survive long in an Azerbaijani prison. "I don't think about where I will die. But at this age, I don't think it would suit our government -- or myself -- if I die in prison," he says.

"My family has been worried about this for a while now, especially the women in my family. Their worries are far worse than my own concerns," he says. "It is harder for them."

With reporting by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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