The United States expressed concern Wednesday about opposition political activists in Azerbaijan still in custody after being detained by authorities following disputed elections in October. Human rights monitors accuse the government in Baku of a widespread crackdown against its opponents.
The State Department says U.S. diplomats have repeatedly raised concerns with senior Azerbaijani authorities about the treatment of detainees and other human rights issues, in the wake of the October 15 presidential election that was widely criticized as flawed by the international community.
Amid post-election violence, Azerbaijani authorities made sweeping arrests of opposition party members, journalists and local election observers who had accused the government of fraud. More than 100 detainees are reported to remain in custody.
At a news briefing, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the United States is urging authorities in Baku to expedite the investigations of persons detained during and after the October election and to grant them due process of the law.
"We believe the authorities should either charge those arrested with crimes, and present the evidence against them, or release them. And we call on the authorities to proceed in accordance with international standards, and to provide all appropriate legal protections and due process to all detainees," he said.
A private monitoring group, Human Rights Watch, says the government of the new Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has unleashed a "massive crackdown" on the opposition, using post-election violence as a pretext, and says the former Soviet republic is experiencing its "gravest human rights crisis" in the past decade.
A report by the New York-based group, due for formal release Friday, accuses the government of intimidating opposition parties with police brutality and arbitrary arrests in the run-up to the election, and using "brutal and excessive" force to suppress demonstrations afterward.
Official figures said Ilham Aliyev received nearly 80 percent of votes cast in an election held less than two weeks after his father - longtime president Heidar Aliyev - dropped out of the race for health reasons and urged support for his son. The elder Mr. Aliyev died at a U.S hospital last month.
After the election, the State Department said the United States was "deeply disappointed and concerned" that the exercise "failed to meet international standards."
In its pending report, Human Rights Watch says Azerbaijani authorities carried out a "well-organized campaign of fraud" to ensure Ilham Aliyev's election.
It calls for a independent commission of inquiry, with international participation, to investigate the conduct of the election.
It also urges an immediate review of the cases of the detainees, and investigations of reports of abuse and torture of those held with the prosecution of government security agents found responsible.