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UN Experts Ask Azerbaijan To Stop Free Speech Curbs

Azerbaijan has recently jailed two youth activists
GENEVA (Reuters) -- United Nations human rights experts asked Azerbaijan on July 31 to stop curbing free speech and to protect journalists from harassment, violence, and even murder.

The call was issued by the world body's 18-member Human Rights Committee, an independent watchdog, after a day-long discussion earlier this month with a government delegation from the energy-rich former Soviet republic.

The committee voiced concern "at the extensive limitations to the right to freedom of expression of the media, the closure of independent newspapers, and the removal of licences to broadcast locally for a number of foreign radio stations."

In a formal statement, the experts -- academics and lawyers from both developed and developing countries -- said they were also concerned over "reports of killings or beatings of journalists" and the recent arrest of two bloggers.

Diplomats who attended the session on July 21 said that although Azerbaijan sent a high-level delegation to Geneva for the meeting, there was little sign that it would pay much attention to the committee's strictures.

"The delegation met the questions put to them with more or less blank denials -- it was a very Soviet-style performance," said one official who asked not to be identified. "They appeared totally unconcerned."

Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev came to the post on the death in 2003 of his father Heydar, the Communist Party chief there in Soviet times, who returned to power in 1993 after the collapse of a short-lived post-Soviet administration.

An official UN summary of the session quoted one expert as telling Azerbaijan's deputy foreign minister Khalaf Khalafov, who headed the Baku team, that his government "appeared to be in a state of denial" on police violence against dissenters.

The committee meets several times a year to review how governments are living up to their obligations under the UN's International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

It reports directly to the UN General Assembly and is separate from the 47-nation Human Rights Council, where country blocs often prevent or water down expert criticism of states that are members of a majority grouping.