The U.S. Must Take Bolder Action on Azerbaijan

Today, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) introduced an amendment into the FY2018 State Department and Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill which instructs the U.S. State Department to bar the entry of Azerbaijani officials into the U.S. if they were involved in the wrongful imprisonment of journalist Mehman Aliyev.

Sen. Durbin’s amendment is the first serious attempt by the U.S. Congress to address human rights in Azerbaijan since the Azerbaijan Democracy Act was introduced by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) in December 2015. Although that bill never left committee, it sent a strong signal to the Azerbaijani government that the U.S. was willing to institute visa bans and asset freezes on senior government officials if reforms were not instituted.

However, since 2015, the U.S. government has largely been silent on the steadily deteriorating human rights situation in Azerbaijan. This silence has seemingly emboldened President Ilham Aliyev, giving him room to consolidate power and further eradicate civil society. For example, a deeply flawed series of constitutional amendments were adopted in September 2016, prolonging the presidential term and allowing First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva to be appointed as vice president. In May 2017, the Supreme Court ordered five independent news websites to be blocked, claiming the websites were promoting violence and slander. The order was made after Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Azerbaijani service published investigative reports about financial activities linked to members of President Aliyev’s family and his inner circle.

Arrests of journalists, human rights defenders, lawyers, and civil society leaders not only continue, but it has now been alleged that Azerbaijani authorities are involved in the abduction of dissidents living abroad. Journalist Afgan Muktarli moved to Tbilisi, Georgia in order to escape harassment by the Azerbaijani government. He lived in Georgia until May 2017, when he was kidnapped just steps from his home by men in police uniform, pushed into a car, beaten and driven to the Azerbaijani border. He was detained at a border checkpoint there for several hours before Azerbaijani authorities transported him to Baku. He was charged with illegal border crossing, violence against police, and smuggling after 10,000 euros were allegedly found on his person. He is being held in pre-trial detention until at least October 2017.

Meanwhile, as a recent report by the Guardian revealed, Azerbaijani officials are lining their pockets. Senior government officials used a $3 billion secret slush fund since at least 2012 to pay off European politicians, buy luxury goods, launder money, and otherwise benefit themselves. President Aliyev’s children are also benefiting from their positions, earning $82 million in 2016 from their financial holdings. All while the country is in dire economic straits, a combination of plummeting oil prices and lavish spending on gaudy international events, such as the European Olympic Games and the Baku Grand Prix.

The introduction of Sen. Durbin’s amendment is a welcome development in the U.S.-Azerbaijan relationship, but it is not nearly enough. The U.S.government must take bolder action if it wishes to combat what is quickly becoming one of the world’s worst human rights violators. The U.S. State Department should work with the Treasury Department, members of Congress, and civil society to identify individual human rights violators in Azerbaijan at all levels. Once these individuals are identified, visa bans and assets freezes should be enacted either under the Global Magnitsky Act or other appropriate sanctions regimes until all political prisoners are released and Azerbaijan demonstrates a respect for the fundamental human rights of citizens.

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