The U.S. and the persecution of Azerbaijan’s bloggers
Two Azerbaijani political activists and bloggers were sentenced today to prison terms of two and two and a half years, respectively, in obviously trumped up charges of assault. The alleged victim of the beating by these dorky bloggers testified in court that he knew the martial art Wushu and admitted that in his official statement on the incident: “I wrote what policeman told me to write.”
Azerbaijan has a pretty atrocious record on human rights, and I experienced firsthand their thuggish and hamhanded treatment of anyone who opposes them. The more likely cause of the bloggers’ arrest? According to the New York Times, it was:
a video in which a donkey holds a news conference before a circle of gravely nodding journalists. Dressed in a voluminous gray costume, Adnan Hajizada rhapsodizes over the lush life awaiting donkeys in Azerbaijan. To his audience — cosmopolitan young Azeris following his commentaries on blogs and Facebook — the video was a sly send-up of the government, which had been accused in the local news media of paying exorbitant prices to import donkeys.
The U.S. has protested the arrest of the two men, Adnan Hajizada, 26, and Emin Milli, 30. In an August visit to Azerbaijan, one of the top U.S. diplomats in the region, Matthew Bryza (who is rumored to be the next ambassador to Azerbaijan), said “it is essential that these cases [of the jailed bloggers] be resolved according to due process” and that the state respects the fundamental rights of Azerbaijanis and “the advance of media freedom.” A US embassy spokeswoman “expressed concern about the verdicts and said the State Department would issue a formal statement later in the day.“
But countries like Azerbaijan know that statements like that are part of the game that diplomats play. Actions speak louder than words, and inaction can speak just as loud.
In October 2003, Azerbaijan had a presidential election. Human Rights Watch described “an election campaign that from the beginning was heavily manipulated by the government to favor Prime Minister Ilham Aliev, son of President Heidar Aliev. The government ensured that election commissions would be stacked to favor Aliev, and banned nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from monitoring the vote. As the election drew nearer, government officials openly sided with Ilham Aliev, obstructed opposition rallies, and sought to limit participation in them. Police have beaten and arbitrarily detained hundreds of opposition activists, including a seventy-three-year-old woman.”
Did this bother the U.S.? Not especially. According to Mark MacKinnon, a reporter for the Globe and Mail, in his book The New Cold War:
In a message to the Azeri government ahead of the elections, President Bush noted President Ilham Aliyev’s “commitment to a free and fair election” and concluded “I look forward to working with you after these elections.”
The opposition, since then, has more or less given up and in the next presidential elections, in 2008, all of the major opposition parties boycotted. This was deemed “progress” and “an improvement” by the State Department.
By contrast, in neighboring Georgia, less than a month after Azerbaijan’s 2003 elections, the U.S. got heavily involved in supporting the opposition, led by Mikhail Saakashvili, that eventually prevailed in the Rose Revolution. What was the difference? You get one guess.
Yes, you’re right: Azerbaijan has since the collapse of the Soviet Union been a fairly reliable ally of the U.S., while Georgia’s president at the time, Edvard Shevardnadze, was showing signs of being wobbly against the Russians, and Saakashvili is pretty much unrivaled among world leaders in his devotion to Washington.
According to Freedom House, since 2003 Azerbaijan has backslid on human rights, from “partly free” to “not free.” Yet Bryza says they are making progress: “Ilham Aliyev, we believe, is working to modernize the political system of Azerbaijan, to create democracy in the context of Azerbaijan’s culture and traditions — which the president said is necessary, because democracy looks different in every country. That said, they haven’t gone far enough. And we will continue to press President Aliyev — and his opposition as well — to behave constructively, to build and strengthen democratic institutions as we pursue our full range of interests.”
According to another activist who was in court for today’s proceedings, after he was sentenced Hajizada “questioned how alleged witnesses will look into the eyes of their families- we will be done with our sentences but I wonder how they are going to live a life built on lies.” People who claim the Azerbaijan government is improving might think about that, too.