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Azerbaijan: Government Acknowledges Rights Limitations, But Claims Improvements Being Made

In the past six weeks, no less than three different groups have issued major reports criticizing the human rights situation in Azerbaijan. The country is accused of abuses such as detaining political prisoners, suppressing freedom of speech and of the press, and restricting opposition political activity. The government in Baku acknowledges shortcomings but says international bodies should recognize Azerbaijan is making improvements.

Baku, 17 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Two major international organizations have joined the U.S. government in charging Azerbaijan with fundamental abuses of human rights.

Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch recently expressed concern about Azerbaijan's detainment of political prisoners, its alleged torture of some detainees, and the harassment of critics of the government.

In an even more sweeping condemnation, the U.S. State Department's annual human rights report, released in early March, touched on many of these same issues and also accused Baku of restricting freedom of speech and of the press, denying religious freedom to "nontraditional" faiths, and "continuing to restrict citizens' ability to change their government peacefully."

The government of Azerbaijan admits there may be examples of human rights violations in the country, but says the reports do Azerbaijan an injustice by focusing only on criticism.

Fuad Ismailov heads the human rights department at the Azerbaijan Foreign Ministry.

"They are not right if they don't want to include into this report some positive elements," Ismailov says. "We cannot say that we have only black, [that] we [also] don't have some white. When we see that in reports they mention only some negative elements, negative aspects, we of course cannot agree with it. For us, it is very, very strange."

Ismailov says the establishment of human rights departments at the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry and Ministry of Justice show the country is committed to improving its human rights record. He says Baku is eager to cooperate with bodies such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe, both of which have criticized Azerbaijan.

But he says such international bodies must understand the difficulties Azerbaijan faces, with its long history of Soviet domination and unresolved conflict with Armenia.

"They should realize that such countries as Azerbaijan, we don't have experience building democratic societies, of living in democratic societies," Ismailov says.

International organizations say they do take such factors into account. But Anna Sunder-Plassman of Amnesty International says the Azerbaijani government cannot simply explain abuses away.

"I think that human rights organizations do acknowledge that Azerbaijan has many difficulties. There are economic problems and so on. But these problems should never be used as an excuse to violate fundamental human rights," Sunder-Plassman says.

She cites the case of Ilgar Javadov, a 28-year-old man who died while in police custody in Baku in 2001. Amnesty International has been pushing for an investigation into Javadov's case and does not accept that Azerbaijan's history is a good reason for not carrying out such a probe.

"His family certainly wants to find out the truth about the death in the police station of their son, and for them it is not understandable how the geopolitical situation of Azerbaijan should prevent the authorities from investigating their son's death," Sunder-Plassman says.

Since the U.S. State Department issued its human rights report on 4 March, a court in Azerbaijan ordered the closure of a Baptist church, the Church of Love, at the instigation of the government committee responsible for monitoring religious activity in the country.

During parliamentary by-elections on 12 April, international observers reported seeing abuses such as ballot-stuffing and police harassment of local observers.

And the government deployed hundreds of riot police in March to prevent a group of opposition parties from holding a demonstration in Baku to demand the resignation of Azerbaijan President Heidar Aliev. There were reports of police beating demonstrators and detaining opposition activists in the days before the 23 March protest.

The government says holding the rally in a busy downtown square would have disrupted traffic. It reportedly offered to let the opposition congregate in a smaller square outside the city center instead.

Sunder-Plassman of Amnesty International says that explanation is not sufficient: "Certainly, no excessive force should be applied in any case. Even if it is an unsanctioned demonstration, the police should not resort to excessive violence. The other issue is that the authorities may use the tool of not sanctioning a demonstration in order to restrict the freedom of expression."

But while there have been human rights concerns in the past six weeks, Aliyev also has pardoned or reduced the sentences of 89 prisoners, including many whom the Council of Europe considered to be political prisoners.

Eldar Zeynalov, director of the Human Rights Center of Azerbaijan, says the government often makes such gestures in response to international criticism. But he says the government is more reluctant to listen to domestic organizations making the same observations.

"They are dealing with this problem, but under the strong pressure from outside, not from inside. [Azerbaijani] officials are not ready to accept criticism from inside. They ignored the statements of opposition and local NGOs, but if the same allegations, the same statements, are repeated from Strasbourg [or] from Washington, the government reacts," Zeynalov says.

Ismailov of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs says the government is receptive to international criticism, but insists it must be constructive.

"If you have something to say about the situation in Azerbaijan, particularly in the field of human rights and democratization, so please, we are ready to listen to you and we are ready for cooperation -- but for constructive cooperation," Ismailov says. "We cannot accept such an approach that there can be only criticism for the sake of criticism."