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The United States wants to engage with Azerbaijan "more vigorously" and at higher levels, a top State Department official said on January 12.

Thomas Melia, who is Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, said at a National Endowment for Democracy event that the United States is "looking for a way to engage constructively with our partners in the government of Azerbaijan."

At the same time, Melia said the United States "will continue to support the independent voices that are seeking to move their country more briskly into the modern democratic world."

The comments came amid what Western officials and human rights activists describe as a crackdown on critics of the government in the oil-rich Caspian nation.

A file photo of Khadija Ismayilova and lawyer Elton Guliyev

It has been more than a month since investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova was arrested in Baku on charges of inciting an attempted suicide.

She remains in custody on two months' pretrial detention, a term that could be extended as Azerbaijan government prosecutors develop their case.

In a letter to supporters that was published on January 8, Ismayilova -- the host of a daily talk show on RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service -- stressed her determination not to give in to intimidation.

"When I am asked, I say that the struggle between good and evil continues," Ismayilova wrote. "As for [President Ilham] Aliyev's regime, the fight against their evil is a small part of a bigger war. For now, we are the winners."

Ismayilova, 38, added that, ironically, she feels more free than those who are prosecuting her.

"What can I expect from this court?" she wrote. "When I watch the helpless state of the judges and prosecutors, I feel sorry for them. It is strange, but I feel confident when I see them in such a condition. I feel supremely free compared to such officials."

Ismayilova's arrest has been seen as part of a broad crackdown on civil society in Azerbaijan that has included the arrests of many journalists and activists. In addition, independent media outlets and civil society organizations have been pressured and even shut down.

On December 26, Baku authorities sealed the bureau of RFE/RL's Azerbaijan Service, which is known locally as Radio Azadliq. Azadliq journalists have been subjected to long interrogations and frequent searches in the weeks since, although no charges have been filed.

On January 8, Azerbaijan's Meydan TV released an interview with Ismayilova's 72-year-old mother, Elmira Ismayilova, in which she says that she speaks with her daughter once a week and that Khadija is in good spirits.

"When Radio Azadliq was sealed shut," Elmira Ismayilova said, "she was sad she couldn't be with her colleagues. She asked me to tell the team how much she wished she was there."

International support for Khadija Ismayilova's release continues to mount. The Council of Europe, the European Union, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) -- as well as rights organizations -- have called for her release.

On January 5, noted writer Khaled Hosseini added his name to this list. Ismayilova translated Hosseini's first novel, "The Kite Runner," into Azeri.

The "Azerbaijani government's many attempts to silence Khadija and strip her of this freedom speak volumes about her courage and influence in the face of extreme expression," Hosseini wrote.

Aliyev's government, however, remains unapologetic. In an interview published on January 8, presidential administration department head Ali Hasanov accused "some international forces" of interfering in "the internal affairs of independent states" under "the guise of promoting democracy."

"Such interference has led to social and political instability, civil strife, economic decline, and social cataclysms in many countries," he said. "Some facts give reasons to think of the development of specific plans to implement a similar scenario in Azerbaijan as well."

Ismayilova says that the charges against her are spurious and that she is being harassed for her investigative reports into corruption at the highest levels of government, including Aliyev and his family.

For months before her arrest, she was subjected to threats and harassment, including the posting on a progovernment website of an explicit video that was illegally filmed in her apartment. Her mother's address was published by a pro-government newspaper.

Her mother, however, remains steadfastly proud and supportive of her daughter's journalistic work.

"Khadija is always so happy when she finishes one of her investigations," she told Meydan TV. "And she is the type of person who, if she saw a missing fact in it [a story], she would never publish it. Always, even for the smallest thing, she needs to back it up with facts."

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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RFE/RL journalists take risks, face threats, and make sacrifices every day in an effort to gather the news. Our "Journalists In Trouble" page recognizes their courage and conviction, and documents the high price that many have paid simply for doing their jobs. More

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