Washington, 26 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. State Department says Azerbaijan's poor human rights record improved slightly in a few areas, but government actions toward the end of the year negated many of the positive developments.
In its annual report on human rights practices around the world, made public today, the State Department says in 1998 Azerbaijan took some positive steps by easing restrictions on freedom of speech and the press, and officially abolishing censorship in August. Also in August-September, the report says the government allowed a number of public demonstrations and closed its criminal investigation of eight prominent figures from opposition political parties.
But the report adds that despite those positive steps, the government still arrested and opened criminal proceedings against approximately 40 members of opposition parties. The Azeri government currently holds an estimated 75 political prisoners, notes the report. Corruption continued to pervade most government organs, the report says, and it is widely believed that most persons in appointed government and state employment generally purchase their positions.
The report also says the government cracked down hard on the media later in the year and denied broadcast licenses to several organizations applying to open independent television and radio stations. The government also clamped down on freedom of assembly after the election, the report says, effectively restricting citizens' ability to change their government peacefully.
The report says Azeri police continued to beat persons in custody, arbitrarily arrested and detained persons, and conducted searches and seizures without warrants. In most cases, the government took no action to punish the abusers, it says. Moreover, violence against women and discrimination against certain ethnic minorities remain problems, concludes the report.
The report praised Azerbaijan for passing an improved election law, but says the presidential election was marred by many irregularities, and did not meet international standards.