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US Urges Azerbaijan to Fulfill Election Pledges

The United States Tuesday urged Azerbaijani authorities to follow-through on pledges to make parliamentary elections next Sunday fair and transparent. The statement followed a condemnation of the Baku government's pre-election conduct by the New York-based monitoring group Human Rights Watch.

While Human Rights Watch says government behavior will make free and fair elections in Azerbaijan impossible, the State Department says the situation is not entirely negative, and it is calling authorities in Baku make good on promises of recent days to assure the election is fair and transparent.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said U.S. officials, who are monitoring developments on a daily basis, are not going to pre-judge an election that hasn't happened yet, despite the bleak assessment of Human Rights Watch.

"We have noted some positive developments in Azerbaijan," he said. "There have also been some developments on the negative side of the ledger that we have talked about previously. I think at this point, we would encourage the government of Azerbaijan to follow through on the pledges that it has made including having accurate voter lists, having reliable voter identification documents, and finger-inking to eliminate multiple voting."

Mr. McCormack said once the election is completed the United States will have some final opinions, not only on the conduct of the vote itself but also the run-up to the election.

Azerbaijanis are to elect a new 125-member parliament on Sunday. The current parliament is dominated by supporters of President Ilham Aliyev, who succeeded his father as president in 2003 in an election marred by fraud charges.

Mr. McCormack said the election process in the Caspian-basin country is being followed with interest by senior U.S. officials including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who sent Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Daniel Fried on a mission to Baku two weeks ago.

In a policy speech there October 20, Mr. Fried said he believed Azerbaijan was poised to take a great step forward in reform and that free and fair elections were within the country's grasp.

However he said the United States was troubled by insufficient efforts by the government to combat election fraud, and disappointed by curbs on freedom of assembly and mass detentions of political activists including some parliamentary candidates.

Just a few days after Mr. Fried's visit, the Aliyev government announced steps to bolster the integrity and transparency of the voting process - moves welcomed by the State Department, which also urged it to allow for peaceful freedom of assembly.

In its report Monday, Human Rights Watch said a government campaign of violence and intimidation had extinguished the possibility of a free and fair election.

The private group said police violence and arbitrary arrests had been endemic during the campaign, and that authorities had heavily interfered in the election process in favor of government-sponsored candidates.