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."