WASHINGTON -- A U.S. lawmaker has introduced legislation that would deny U.S. visas to senior Azerbaijani officials due to what he calls Baku's "appalling human rights violations."
U.S. Representative Chris Smith (Republican-New Jersey) introduced the bill, titled the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015, in the House of Representatives on December 16.
"The human rights situation has seriously deteriorated in Azerbaijan, causing damage to its relations with the United States and other countries, and has damaged its own society by imprisoning or exiling some of its best and brightest citizens," Smith told a hearing of Congress's Helsinki Commission held in conjunction with the announcement of the legislation.
"The time has come to send a clear message," he added at the hearing, which was dedicated to the case of investigative journalist and RFE/RL contributor Khadija Ismayilova.
Ismayilova's imprisonment in Azerbaijan has been denounced by Western officials and international rights advocates.
In a statement issued by the commission, which is chaired by Smith, the lawmaker said "the United States can no longer remain blind to the appalling human rights violations that are taking place in Azerbaijan."
The bill comes as Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's government faces increased criticism about rights abuses.
Baku authorities have jailed several journalists and rights activists during the past year on charges such as tax evasion, illegal business activity, and hooliganism.
Rights groups say the charges are retribution for opposition activities and criticism of senior government officials, accusations that Azerbaijani officials deny.
It is unacceptable that senior members of the Azerbaijani government are free to visit the United States while courageous women and men…are locked away in prisonsCongressman Chris Smth
The bill submitted by Smith specifically cites the case of Ismayilova, who in September was sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison after being convicted on charges she calls politically motivated.
The legislation would deny entry to -- and revoke current U.S visas held by – individuals "in the senior leadership of the government of Azerbaijan," as well as members of their "immediate family."
Individuals who derive "significant financial benefit" due to their ties to senior officials, as well as security, law enforcement, and judicial officials involved in "persecution or harassment" of journalists, activists, and opposition or religious groups would also face these sanctions.
An exception would be made for Azerbaijani officials entering the United States to take part in negotiations related to a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Baku and Armenia under the auspices of the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
The visa sanctions "could be lifted when the Azerbaijani government shows substantial progress toward releasing political prisoners, ending its harassment of civil society, and holding free and fair elections," the Helsinki Commission said.
The Azerbaijani Embassy in Washington did not respond to a December 16 email seeking comment on the legislation, and calls to the embassy went unanswered.
In the December 16 statement, Smith cited the cases of Ismayilova, lawyer Intigam Aliyev, opposition politician Ilgar Mammadov, and independent election observer Anar Mammadli, all of whom are currently incarcerated in cases widely denounced as politically motivated.
"It is unacceptable that senior members of the Azerbaijani government are free to visit the United States while [these] courageous women and men…are locked away in prisons with inadequate access to legal or even medical assistance," he said.
"If they can pay the price for standing up for human rights, the least we can do is to stand with them," Smith said.
Wedged between Iran, Turkey, and Russia, Azerbaijan is a moderate Muslim society known for its vast oil and gas wealth, which has attracted investment from major international oil companies including ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, and others.
It has been courted by U.S. administrations for security and energy cooperation, and millions of dollars from Azerbaijan have flowed into lobbying efforts in recent years to allay concerns from U.S. and European officials about its rights record and to portray Azerbaijan as a stable partner for the West.
Rights watchdogs have criticized Washington in recent years for what they call a failure to hold Azerbaijan accountable for abusing human rights and civil liberties and, instead, relying on realpolitik in dealing with Baku.
Smith said in his statement that "we recognize that there are important national security, and economic ties that exist between our two countries.”
He told the hearing on Capitol Hill, however, that "as an ally increasingly careens in the path of human rights abuse and cruelty, that relationship becomes less valuable and less reliable.”
"And frankly, I would submit that friends don't let friends commit human rights abuses," Smith said. "If we are friends, then we should be the first and the foremost in bringing this to light and trying to mitigate it and end it."
Smith’s legislation was submitted on the same day that the Council of Europe launched a rare official inquiry into Azerbaijan’s compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights.
Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland said the inquiry was initiated due to rulings from the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights that "have highlighted an arbitrary application of the law in Azerbaijan, notably in order to silence critical voices and limit freedom of speech."