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Azerbaijan Expels Human Rights Watch Representative

FILE - Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev announced an amnesty March 19 that resulted in the pardoning and release of two jailed opposition activists, yet some still say the country is bent on silencing critical voices.

Azerbaijan expelled a Human Rights Watch researcher Tuesday after barring him from entering the country to attend the trial of two Azeri rights activists and holding him for 31 hours, the rights group said.

Human Rights Watch said Azeri officials gave no reason for sending back Georgy Gogia, who had flown in from Georgia on Monday, and said the expulsion reflected a crackdown on rights in the former Soviet republic.

Several rights activists and journalists have been sentenced to prison terms this year and last in Azerbaijan on charges including illegal business activity and hooliganism. Their lawyers have dismissed their trials as politically motivated.

"Barring Georgy Gogia from attending the trial hearings shows just how far Azerbaijan's authorities have taken their crackdown on human rights,'' Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. "They've ruthlessly silenced many critical voices inside the country, and now they don't want to let anyone in to bear witness to what they are doing.''

Gogia is senior South Caucasus researcher for Human Rights Watch. The group said that the activists whose trials he planned to attend were arrested in August.

Airport officials confiscated Gogia's passport upon his arrival in Baku on Monday and handed it to the flight crew of the plane that took him back to Georgia 31 hours later, Human Rights Watch said.

Azerbaijan, governed by President Ilham Aliyev since he succeeded his father in 2003, has been courted by the West as an alternative to Russia in supplying oil and gas to Europe.

Rights groups accuse Azerbaijan of muzzling dissent and jailing opponents, charges it denies. But Amnesty International reported this month that at least 20 prisoners of conscience were awaiting trial in the country following charges ranging from fraud and embezzlement to abuse of drugs and even treason.

Two jailed opposition activists were pardoned and released March 19 as part of amnesty announced by Aliyev.