The Real Scandal of Congressional Junkets to Azerbaijan

Recent reports on a trip to Azerbaijan by U.S. lawmakers focused on possible breaches of rules regarding travel expenses, but not on the ethics of boosting ties with a vicious dictatorship.

by Anastasia Tkach
Publications and Research Intern, Nations in Transit

The Washington Post recently published a story about 10 members of Congress who received funding from the Azerbaijani government, through its state oil company SOCAR, to attend a conference in Baku. The conference was titled “U.S.-Azerbaijan Convention: Vision for the Future,” and took place in the spring of 2013. The Office of Congressional Ethics investigated the event, and in its report described how SOCAR allegedly channeled $750,000 into two Houston-based nonprofits to cover the lawmakers’ expenses. Money provided by SOCAR also covered flights and accommodations for their staff and family members, as well as valuable gifts of rugs, scarves, and tea sets.

Much of what was written about these revelations focused on the members of Congress, their failure in nearly every case to report the gifts, and their blind acceptance of the nonprofits’ false claims to be the sponsors of the trip. The lawmakers denied any knowledge that Azerbaijani state funds were behind the event, saying they had attended only after receiving clearance from the House Ethics Committee. The Office of Congressional Ethics concluded in its report that “a person’s ignorance of the true source of travel expenses is not an absolute shield from liability for receipt of travel expenses from an improper source.”

However, this narrow focus on the rules surrounding congressional junkets ignores the larger story of whether U.S. officials should be uncritically visiting and strengthening American ties with an authoritarian state. In other words, the problem is not simply that the trip was paid for by a foreign government, but that the conference itself was meant to celebrate U.S. relations with a regime involved in mass political repression, human rights abuses, and systemic corruption.

A comment by Human Rights Watch’s Andrea Prasow summed up the problem: “#Azerbaijan secretly funded US congressional trip. Lawmakers get silk scarves & rugs while activists suffer in jail.”

While the Congress members pleaded ignorance on the true sponsorship of the conference, they could not have been unaware of Azerbaijan’s poor and deteriorating human rights record. Like many other measurements, U.S. government assessments, and widespread media coverage on the issue, Freedom House’s Nations in Transit report has tracked Azerbaijan’s steady decline on democracy indicators over the last decade. In the report’s latest edition, Azerbaijan received an overall democracy score of 6.68 on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 representing the worst possible performance.

The following are just a few reasons why U.S. lawmakers should think twice before visiting Azerbaijan, no matter who foots the bill:

  • A list released in August 2014 identified 98 political prisoners in Azerbaijan, and several activists involved in compiling the list, such as Leyla Yunus and Rasul Jafarov, have since become political prisoners themselves. A more recent list, whose authors remained anonymous, counted 80 detainees, with some having been pardoned or completed their sentences. Meanwhile, President Ilham Aliyev continues to deny the existence of political prisoners in Azerbaijan.
  • Arrested dissidents, journalists, and activists report beatings, lack of access to lawyers, lack of access to medical care, forced confessions, and lengthy pretrial detentions. In September 2014, the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture was prevented from visiting several places of detention to which it had previously been promised access. The group was eventually granted access on a return trip in April, though it said the government had yet to guarantee fundamental rights to detainees.
  • President Aliyev, who effectively inherited his post from his father in 2003, secured a third term in office through deeply flawed elections in 2013. No election in Azerbaijan has been deemed free and fair by international observers since 1993, and few electoral reform recommendations have been implemented. In addition, since the 2010 parliamentary elections, there have been no genuine opposition parties in the legislature.
  • The government dominates the media landscape, and independent or critical journalists face intimidation, harassment, arrests, travel bans, and libel charges. As of early December 2014, at least nine journalists were being held in custody in Azerbaijan, making it the worst jailer of journalists in Eurasia. Later that month, the government raided and sealed the Baku bureau of U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), arbitrarily detaining and interrogating its staff members. One prominent RFE/RL reporter, Khadija Ismayilova, remains in prison, having been harassed for years due to her investigative reports on corruption in the Aliyev family. 
  • Restrictive NGO laws and registration processes have choked off foreign funding and forced the closures of local and international organizations in Azerbaijan. Individual activists often face trumped-up charges of tax fraud, drug and weapons possession, or even treason, and high fines are used to exert financial pressure on organizations. At least 50 organizations had their bank accounts frozen during 2014 as part of criminal investigations against the groups. Because of this pressure, at least three organizations were forced to close, while others had to reduce or suspend activities. Among the several international NGOs affected were U.S.-based IREX and National Democratic Institute (NDI). Many local groups that went quiet or agreed to cooperate with the government later had their account freezes removed.

Note: This post was updated on May 28 to include more recent information on political prisoners and other topics in the bullet points above.

Photo Credit: Azerbaijan's Parliament Building in Baku.Tony Bowden (Flickr/Creative Commons)