One year since Azeri authorities raided and shut RFE/RL’s Baku bureau and imprisoned prominent contributor Khadija Ismayilova, U.S. Representative Chris Smith has introduced a landmark bill denying U.S. visas to senior members of Azerbaijan’s government.
The December 16 announcement came as Rep. Smith chaired a hearing to examine “Azerbaijan’s persecution” of Ismayilova. The investigative reporter was sentenced to 7.5 years in prison in September on charges widely viewed as retaliation for her reporting linking members of President Ilham Aliyev’s family members to massive foreign real estate holdings, controlling stakes in the country’s telecom and airline industries, and ownership of Azeri gold mines.
In testimony provided at the hearing, RFE/RL Editor in Chief Nenad Pejic described Ismayilova’s imprisonment and the December 26 closure of RFE/RL’s Baku bureau last year “as a targeted and coordinated effort by the country’s most senior leadership to punish journalists who report on the government’s corruption, silence independent journalism, and end RFE/RL’s operations in Azerbaijan.”
In published remarks announcing the bill, Rep. Smith, who is Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, explained, “…the United States can no longer remain blind to the appalling human rights violations that are taking place in Azerbaijan.” He said, “The Azerbaijan Democracy Act demonstrates that the United States…will not compromise when faced by a government that represses the political opposition, the media, and religious minorities.”
Almost concurrent with Rep. Smith’s announcement, Secretary General of the 47-nation Council of Europe Thorbjorn Jagland yesterday provided notice of an official inquiry into Azerbaijan's compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights, citing “an arbitrary application of the law in Azerbaijan, notably in order to silence critical voices and limit freedom of speech.”
Journalists with RFE/RL’s Baku bureau yesterday received the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ (BBG) 2015 David Burke Distinguished Journalism Award for demonstrating exceptional bravery and integrity in reporting and, said BBG Chairman Jeff Shell, “tackl[ing] issues of critical importance in some of the most dangerous locations on earth.”