WASHINGTON -- A group of 16 U.S. Senators, led by Minority Whip Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), addressed Azeri President Ilham Aliyev with growing concern about “a systematic crackdown on human rights and independent civil society” in Azerbaijan, calling on him in a letter issued yesterday [full text here] to “provid[e] a more tolerant environment” for media, reopen RFE/RL’s Baku bureau, and release Khadija Ismayilova, the country’s most prominent investigative reporter, who was imprisoned on fabricated charges last December.
In addition to Senator Durbin, other signatories include Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Sen. Christopher Murphy (D-CT), Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), Sen. Jean Shaheen (D-NH), Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), and Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI).
The letter, which also expresses the Senators’ concern about the “politically motivated arrests” of civil society activists Anar Mammadli, Leyla and Arif Yunus, Intigam Aliyev, and Rasul Jafarov, comes just days after the end of the first European Games, an Olympic-style sporting event that Azerbaijan hosted at a reported cost of $10 billion. It also comes as official media in Azerbaijan have intensified attacks on US government officials, including a claim, refuted by the U.S. Embassy in an official statement, that the U.S. Ambassador was “plotting a coup in Azerbaijan.”
Ismayilova remains in so-called pre-trial detention after being arrested on December 5, 2014 on charges of inciting a former colleague to attempt suicide, a claim that her accuser has since withdrawn. An investigation of Ismayilova on subsequent accusations of tax evasion and embezzlement, charges that have been brought against other jailed journalists and activists, concluded on June 23. This could enable authorities to bring Ismayilova to trial next month, although many observers have noted that Azerbaijan lacks independent courts and a record of adhering to due process norms.
RFE/RL closed its Baku bureau on May 22 after its landlord summarily terminated its lease, Azeri authorities froze the bank accounts of several freelancers, and threatened numerous members of its staff with further harassment, including travel bans and possible arrest.