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US Officials Defend Efforts to Promote Democracy in Azerbaijan - 2004-01-23

The State Department says U.S. diplomats have been active on behalf of opposition activists still detained by Azerbaijani authorities following disputed elections last October. Human Rights Watch said Friday the government of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has sought to crush dissent and that the U.S. response has been muted.

The Bush administration has renewed its criticism of the crackdown in Azerbaijan that followed the October 15 presidential vote, while at the same time defending its efforts for democracy in the former Soviet republic.

The comments followed a report by the monitoring group Human Rights Watch, which said Azerbaijani authorities unleashed a campaign of arbitrary arrests, beatings and torture against members of the political opposition following the election, which international observers say was badly flawed.

Human Rights Watch urged the international community to take a strong stance against what was termed a "rising tide of abuse" in that country. It faulted what it said was the Bush administration's "lack of willingness" to do so in Azerbaijan, despite its stated objective of promoting democracy and respect for human rights in the Middle East.

At a news briefing, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said U.S. officials look forward to reading the Human Rights Watch report. He said they agree that Azerbaijani authorities conducted "a wave of arrests" against opposition members, journalists and election officials who refused to sign falsified vote tallies, and that there have been reports of torture of some of those held.

Mr. Ereli said the United States has, and will continue to, speak out forcefully for democracy and the rule of law in countries around the world, including Azerbaijan, and said there have been repeated U.S. complaints about the treatment of the detainees.

"We have frequently raised our concern about this to the government of Azerbaijan, and members of the U.S. embassy have visited some of the detainees," he said. "We continue to call on Azerbaijan to provide the defendants in these cases all appropriate legal protection and due process in accordance with international standards."

A State Department official said U.S. diplomats have been "intensely engaged" with officials in Baku on the subject of the detainees and said they are encouraged by an announcement Thursday that 10 were being released and that court hearings for 17 more would be held before the end of the month. U.S. officials believe there are about 130 election related detainees still held.

In the official tally from the October election, Ilham Aliyev won nearly 80 per cent of the vote. The balloting was held less than two weeks after his father, longtime Azerbaijani leader Heydar Aliyev, dropped out of the race for health reasons. He died of heart failure last month in a U.S. hospital.

The State Department said after the election that the United States was "deeply disappointed and concerned" that it failed to meet international standards and called for an independent investigation of election violations, and of the behavior of security forces in putting down post-election protests.

Human Rights Watch faulted the United States for failing to provide more than verbal support for a commission of inquiry, and said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was silent about election abuses in a visit to Azerbaijan last month.