A senior U.S. senator says he intends to press Azerbaijani officials to release government critics imprisoned amid what rights groups call an escalating campaign to silence dissent in the oil-rich former Soviet republic.
Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, told RFE/RL on October 29 that the U.S. ambassador in Baku, Robert Cekuta, has “encouraged” him to open a “dialogue with the Azerbaijani government” about the Caucasus nation’s human rights record.
Cekuta “doesn’t believe the West should give up,” Durbin said. “He believes that there are still influences within the country and within the government that want to move in the right direction.”
"They’ve really got to come to grips with some of the excesses when it comes to human rights policy and be a more open society, more tolerant society," Durbin said. "I think that really is in the best interest of the people who live there."
Durbin said he had spoken with Cekuta earlier in the day and that he hopes to meet next week with Elin Suleymanov, the Azerbaijani ambassador in Washington.
“I want to reinforce that if I can in my communications with their ambassador, and perhaps later try to find other ways to reach out and convince them the release of these prisoners would be in the best interest of the country," Durbin said.
Numerous activists, journalists, and government critics -- including investigative journalist and RFE/RL contributor Khadija Ismayilova -- are currently imprisoned in Azerbaijan on charges that Western officials and international rights groups have called politically motivated.
Baku has repeatedly rejected the accusations, insisting that the cases in question are strictly criminal in nature.
Durbin met this week in Washington with Dinara Yunus, the daughter of Azerbaijani rights activists Leyla and Arif Yunus, who are currently serving prison terms on charges widely denounced as a travesty of justice.
Dinara Yunus told a briefing on Capitol Hill on October 28 that she fears her parents, both of whom suffer from health problems, will “die behind bars.”
“They are both facing some very serious medical challenges, and we’re very worried about it,” Durbin said of the Yunuses, adding that he discussed the couple’s case with Cekuta.
Durbin has been a vocal critic of Azerbaijan’s rights human rights record.
In July, he led 15 other U.S. senators in a letter to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev that expressed "growing concern" for "the diminishing space for both civil society" and media freedoms in Azerbaijan.
In another letter to Aliyev in August, Durbin and two other U.S. senators called for the release of “peaceful civil society activists” imprisoned in cases with “political overtones.”