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Senator Richard Durbin Statement on Political Prisoners in Azerbaijan


Senator Richard  Durbin made a statement on March 26.

"We have a number of challenging foreign policy issues at the moment – from Russian aggression in Ukraine to ISIL and the Syrian civil war to stemming climate change. Yet amid these larger demands, it is important to remember there are many smaller struggles going on all over the world that are also important – struggles for basic political freedoms which can still result in jailings or worse.

Today I would like to mention a number of such brave individuals who are being detained for exercising or advocating for such democratic values. First, I am deeply troubled by the recent crackdown on human rights activists in Azerbaijan – part of a disturbing pattern in that country that has significantly deteriorated during the last year.

The New York Times summed it up nicely in its recent editorial by describing Azeri President Aliyev as a modern-day "Jekyll and Hyde” who is able to convince the world that he plays nice with the West while creating one of the worst human rights records at the same time. Aliyev wants the world to believe that Azerbaijan is a model country that promotes moderate Islam, has strong relations with the West, and is an ideal host for the upcoming European games, yet it currently holds more political prisoners than Russia and Belarus combined – not a great distinction to be sure.

At the end of 2014, Aliyev’s henchmen brazenly raided Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty offices in Baku, just weeks after the government arrested one of the country’s best known investigative reporters, Khadija Ismayilova. After more than 2 months of detention, she was charged with embezzlement, illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion and abuse of power--similar charges to those of other human rights activists.

 Last August, Senators Cardin, Murphy, and I sent a letter to President Aliyev expressing our concern over the imprisonment of Anar Mammadli and Bashir Suleymanli, the chair and the executive director of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center, an organization that promotes free and fair elections in Azerbaijan. Recently, Bashir was finally released but his colleague Anar remains behind bars.

Just prior, police arrested Leyla Yunus, the director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy. The very next week, the police followed up by arresting her husband, Arif Yunus; fellow activist, Rasul Jafarov, a human rights defender and chairman of the Human Rights Club; and Intigam Aliyev, the country’s most prominent human rights lawyer and the 2012 winner of the prestigious Homo Homini Award for his work defending the rule of law in Azerbaijan.

Last month, the Washington Post ran a powerful letter on its opinion page written recently by Khadija where she states that the reason she is in prison is because of the regime’s corruption and vows to continue to expose that corruption. Less than a week later the Azeri government suddenly called for a closed-door trial and found her guilty of criminal libel. To quote her piece in the Post: "The fight between good and evil goes on, and the most important thing is that this fight should not end. If we can continue to reject the thinking that is imposed on us and believe that human dignity is not for sale, then we are the winners, and they, our jailers both inside and outside prison, are the losers.”

Sadly, this is just a snapshot of the many brave Azeris or organizations facing trumped-up charges or imprisonment for simply exercising basic political freedoms. To them, I say, the world is aware of your plight and courage. And to President Aliyev, I urge you to release your own people whose only offense has been to ask for a peaceful democratic Azerbaijan. You cannot be a part of the Western community of democracies while violating its core democratic principles”, - reads the letter. 




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