Witnesses testifying at a U.S. congressional hearing on September 15 voiced deep concern about rising Russian influence and instability in Azerbaijan, as well as the continued forced closure of RFE/RL’s bureau in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku.
The hearing, entitled “Azerbaijan: Do Human Rights Matter?” was organized by the bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, chaired by U.S. Representative James McGovern (D-MA), and took place just two weeks before a planned constitutional referendum that panelists and human rights groups have criticized for being held in the absence of independent media, opposing campaigning, and international monitors.
Investigative journalist, former political prisoner, and RFE/RL contributor Khadija Ismayilova told the hearing of the harsh conditions faced by journalists like herself who report on high-level corruption, pointing out that “no [Azerbaijani] laws say that journalism is a crime…But where critical journalism is concerned, it is really difficult to enforce the rule of law in Azerbaijan.” Ismayilova addressed the hearing by video conference from her home in Baku, as she is currently barred by the government from traveling outside Azerbaijan.
In response to a question from Rep. McGovern about how the international community can help Azerbaijanis access accurate and factual news, Ismayilova noted that “Radio Free Europe is the best America has done in Azerbaijan.”
Ismayilova, who said 138 political prisoners are currently being held in Azerbaijani prisons, testified that repression inside the country has targeted pro-Western journalists, bloggers, politicians and civil society activists, as well as religious moderates. At the same time, she said, “Russian media has its bureaus in Baku, while RFE/RL's Baku bureau is closed and its equipment has been confiscated illegally.” Ismayilova also noted in her testimony that RFE/RL has been banned by the government from Azerbaijan’s domestic airwaves since 2009 -- a restriction that is not shared by Russia’s Sputnik radio station.
Richard Kauzlarich, who served as U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan in the 1990s, declared that "quiet diplomacy has not worked” as a means of persuading the government to tolerate greater freedoms. He urged Washington to consider recalling its ambassador in Baku, and imposing asset freezes and visa bans for officials involved in repressing journalists and activists.
Ismayilova was released from prison in May this year after being arrested in December, 2014 on charges that are widely believed to have been brought in retaliation for her reporting about corruption linked to family members and friends of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. That same month, RFE/RL’s Baku bureau was raided and sealed by government agents in connection with tax-related claims that RFE/RL has called “baseless.”