Human Rights Watch reports press freedom in Azerbaijan has deteriorated since the October 2003 presidential election. A key opposition leader visiting Washington says the government crackdown on independent voices continues while many of his colleagues remain in jail. VOA's Brent Hurd reports on this oil-rich country's struggle for democracy.

Many Azeris are still haunted by what happened the day after elections last October. Ilham Aliyez, son of long-time leader Haider Aliyev, had just won the presidency by a landslide. But international observers strongly criticized the election as fraudulent and marred by voter intimidation, ballot violations and arrests of election officials. The opposition pledged to challenge the result. The next day thousands mobilized to protest. Tempers flared as opposition supporters and police clashed.

Graphic television footage captured police clobbering bloodied protesters. Struggling to protect their heads, many were hit repeatedly as they fled the area. The violence left at least one protester dead and more than 300 seriously wounded.

Ali Karimli is chairman of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, one of the opposition groups that took part in the post-election demonstration. ?It is unfortunate that while the international community was demanding from the Azeri government to punish those responsible for the violence and torture against demonstrators, the government has instead promoted these people. This shows the government is encouraging this kind of action.?

Human Rights Watch agreed that the Azerbaijani government has failed to prosecute police officers responsible for using excessive force. Rachel Denber, Executive Director for Europe and Central Asia division, says the media remain far from free in Azerbaijan. ?Right after the elections there was a sharp deterioration [in press freedom]. We saw printing presses unwilling to publish opposition or independent media. We saw the cost of newsprint skyrocket for inexplicable reasons. We saw the government not pursue security forces who have unjustifiably beaten journalists at the demonstration.?

But the Azerbaijani government denies that the police used excessive force and said they were attacked and defended themselves. Azerbaijani officials add that despite the difficulty of a transition period, free media are developing.

Human Rights Watch says the Azerbaijani government has taken some steps to protect journalists, including the establishment of a permanent non-governmental council to resolve conflicts between the media and authorities. However, the human rights group says Azerbaijani officials need to do more to change the climate of fear that exists for independent media.

Nelson Ledski, regional director for Eurasia at the National Democratic Institute, believes Azerbaijan can develop democratically if the government shows the political will to conduct genuine reforms. But he says such democratic reforms appear to be stalled. ?There is a mixed picture. There have been some developments that are positive but most have been negative. There has been a continuation of media control, a great deal of harassment of opposition party leaders and an absence of openness and transparency in governmental administration.?

Although the October election failed to meet international standards, Zeyno Baran, a Caucasus scholar of the Nixon Center here in Washington, says it was better than previous elections. She is more concerned that the US government did not swiftly criticize Azerbaijani officials for the excessive violence against demonstrators. She says this sends the wrong message. ?We need to see a little bit more firm and constructive comments and criticism from Washington. It is certainly making the common people in Azerbaijan think that the United States does not care about democracy and only oil and military cooperation and this is not the place the United States wants to be right now.?

The former Soviet republics surrounding the Caspian Sea sit on oil reserves that are nearly as rich as those of Saudi Arabia. In 1994, Azerbaijan signed a multi-billion dollar "contract of the century" with ten international oil companies. ?I think during the next five to 10 years in Azerbaijan it is going to be extremely important to see whether a country that has rich oil resources as well as a majority Muslim population can live in a democracy. Azerbaijan is one of the few Muslim countries that has close relations with United States.?

Public demonstrations have remained illegal since the October election so many Azeris gather in mosques to discuss politics. Zeyno Baran says Islamist ideology is becoming an increasingly attractive form of political opposition. Some analysts believe Azerbaijan can still become a stable and free country, but may also succumb to Islamic radicalism.