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U.S. Official Urges 'Positive' Rights Signals From Baku

BAKU (RFE/RL) -- A visiting U.S. State Department official tasked with promoting democracy and human rights has warned of obstacles to a free press in Azerbaijan and encouraged freshly reelected President Ilham Aliyev to send "positive signals" to Washington in the areas of democracy and media freedom.

David Kramer, who is U.S. assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights and labor, told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service during a visit to Baku that "it is our sincere hope that with the postelection environment, President Aliyev and his government will lead the way on further steps toward liberalization."

Kramer noted U.S. "concerns" over the continued detention of journalists and said the U.S. delegation had asked that "serious consideration [be] given to their cases and the possibility of releases" in meetings with senior Azerbaijani officials.

He also responded to fears that a National TV-Radio Council announcement that foreign broadcasters would not be allowed to occupy Azerbaijani frequencies after December would prove a serious setback for U.S.-funded RFE/RL and VOA, as well as BBC and other international broadcasters.

"We want and plan to continue broadcasts [in Azerbaijan]," Kramer said, adding that upcoming discussions with the Azerbaijani government would focus on doing that "consistent with their legislation."

But RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service reports that a state broadcaster sent a letter to VOA's television arm to inform it that VOA programs will not be aired after December 31.

Previous reports have suggested that Azerbaijani officials expect to issue a final decision on the foreign-broadcasts ban later this month.

President Aliyev, who succeeded his father shortly before the latter's death in 2003, won a second term in a mid-October election that Western observers described as undemocratic.

"We find that the most reliable, stable, secure partners for the United States are those countries that are moving forward in a democratic direction, and that's what we hope to see in this country," Kramer said.

"I think it's important that -- with a new administration [of President-elect Barack Obama] coming into office in Washington -- that the government here [in Baku] think about some positive signals it can send in this area [of] democracy and human rights," Kramer told RFE/RL. "I think the new administration will equally value the relationship between our two countries, but also share the view that our relationship can reach its fullest potential when we see greater progress in the area of democracy and human rights here."