Ignoring Human Rights in Azerbaijan

Last December, I wrote here about Khadija Ismayilova, a reporter jailed in retaliation for her reporting about official corruption in the oil rich dictatorship of Azerbaijan. From jail, Ismayilova had written an unflinching but cheerful New Year’s greeting to her friends while the government was bringing a case against her for the bizarre charge of “inciting suicide.” Without regret or self-pity, she wrote: “Yes, there is a price to pay,” she wrote at the time. “But it is worth it!” Now, the regime is making Ismayilova pay a higher price. On September 1st, she was sentenced to seven and one half years in prison.

Ismayilova got under the skin of Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, with a 2011 article for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that linked his daughters to the main shareholders of a telecom firm that was launched without a competitive process. His regime retaliated with harassment and blackmail. When that didn’t work, they brought new charges of embezzlement and abuse of power.

Other reports have traced suspicious amounts of wealth and commercial ties to Aliyev family. A 2010 Washington Post story by Andrew Higgins traced expensive Dubai real estate held in the name of their then pre-teen younger brother.

Ismayilova is not the Aliyev regime’s only target. Azerbaijan holds some 100 political prisoners. Astonishingly, Azerbaijan remains a member, and since May the chairman of, of the Council of Europe, which describes itself as “the continent’s leading human rights organization.” In a devastating article in the July issue of the Journal of Democracy, Gerald Knaus chronicles the corruption, moral and financial, of the Council’s work on Azerbaijan.  Ultimately, he concludes, it is neither money, nor lobbying, but “the remarkable indifference of European democrats toward their own human rights institutions” that explains Aliyev’s extraordinary influence. 

Unfortunately, Ismayilova and her fellow jailed activists, not European officials, suffer the consequences of a soft line on Azerbaijan’s rights abuses. Nevertheless, she doesn’t feel sorry for herself. “Everything depends on how you look at things,” Ismayilova said in a final statement to the court. “Those who believe in struggle do not feel the difficulties.” She is already planning to investigate Azerbaijan’s prison system from the inside. “I will build homes from the stones thrown at me.”

In any case, Ismayilova remains optimistic about Azerbaijan’s future. “I think the repression machine is about to collapse,” she told the court that sentenced her. Perhaps, she ventures, the decline in oil prices that have buoyed the fortunes of several authoritarian regimes, is a factor, but, she says, “there are other reasons as well. One of these reasons is us!” It certainly won’t be the disapproval of the world’s democracies. 

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