Reformer’s Detention Raises Questions About Human Rights in Azerbaijan

Reformer’s Detention Raises Questions About Human Rights in Azerbaijan

BAKU, Azerbaijan -- Oil-rich in a troublesome neighborhood, Azerbaijan ranks high among Western-leaning former Soviet satellites the United States wants in its corner. But critics counter that better relations with Washington must be in step with democratic reforms, and not obscure a grim human rights record that could become a destabilizing force within the country. The high-profile case of a leading reform minister imprisoned on still unproven charges cuts to the heart of the debate.

The Bush administration last April came under heavy fire for receiving President Ilham Aliyev at the White House following 2005 parliamentary elections roundly condemned by international observers as flawed. In the days running up to the ballot, riot police beat up opposition protesters and a number of ranking ministers were summarily arrested. According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the vote was marred by irregularities, ballot-stuffing and intimidation. Human rights watchdogs slammed the invitation as another failure of a conflicted U.S. foreign policy where democratic slogans belie actions guided by cold strategic interests.

Azerbaijan is a secular Muslim country wedged between Russia and Iran. U.S. officials stress its value as an energy alternative and security partner in a sensitive region. They cite continued Azeri oil and natural gas deliveries to Europe as a counterweight to the dominance of Russia's state-owned Gazprom energy giant, along with Aliyev's early willingness to contribute troops to missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others say its northern border with Iran, and sizeable Azeri minority within the Islamic republic, could prove useful as tensions rise. The U.S. military is also granted over-flight rights in Azeri airspace and the Pentagon is sponsoring the modernization of a former Soviet airfield that may be used by U.S. forces in the future.

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