Questions for the Nominated U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan

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Over the last year, the already poor human rights situation in Azerbaijan has deteriorated. The government in Baku has increased efforts to suppress dissent by implementing restrictive laws, jailing journalists and activists on false charges, and brutally attacking critics, all while claiming to be a cooperative strategic partner of the United States.

The following are suggested questions for Robert Francis Cekuta, the nominee for U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan, whose confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will take place on Wednesday, September 17.

1.      Azerbaijan is experiencing what some would call the most brutal crackdown on civil society in recent history. According to Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World report, freedom in Azerbaijan declined in 2013. Arrests of journalists and activists are on the rise, and attacks against them continue with impunity. Azerbaijani authorities are using travel bans, the freezing of bank accounts, incarceration, and public smears to silence dissent. Key government critics have even faced intimidation in the form of surreptitious video recordings of them having sex, which are then posted to the internet if anonymous threats fail to curb their activism.

Do you think Azerbaijan can still be considered a partner to the United States when it is cracking down on civil society and raiding American organizations like IREX and the National Democratic Institute?

2.      Azerbaijan continues to detain numerous activists, members of the political opposition, journalists, academics, and even religious figures for politically motivated reasons. The following are among the country’s 106 political prisoners: Leyla Yunus, Arif Yunus, Rauf Mirkadyrov, Tofiq Yaqublu, Ilgar Mammadov, Avaz Zeynalli, Nijat Aliyev, Taleh Bagirzade, Intiqam Aliyev, Rasul Jafarov, Emin Huseynov, Anar Mammadli, Ilkin Rustamzade, Zaur Gurbanli, Rashadat Akhundov, Rashad Hasanov, Uzeyir Mammadli, Bakhtiyar Guliyev, Mammad Azizov, and Shahin Novruzlu.

As ambassador, what will you do to secure the release of these individuals and others like them?

3.      In addition to recent detentions of civil society activists, the authorities use fabricated charges to muzzle critical media outlets, and violence against journalists remains common. Journalist and human rights defender Ilgar Nasibov was brutally beaten at the end of August.

What will you do as the U.S. government’s representative to ensure a proper and transparent investigation of this crime?

4.      Last year’s presidential election in Azerbaijan was fraught with serious irregularities, such as candidate and voter intimidation, violations of ballot secrecy, multiple voting, and ballot-box stuffing. Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe concluded that the election “was undermined by limitations on the freedoms of expression, assembly, and association that did not guarantee a level playing field for candidates.”

What is the United States doing to create conditions in which Azerbaijan’s future elections can be conducted in a truly free and transparent manner?

5.      Azerbaijan continues to receive assistance from the U.S. government, including more than $2.5 million in foreign military financing in fiscal year 2013. This number is expected to total $2.7 million for fiscal year 2014. One of the stated objectives of foreign military financing is to “maintain support for democratically elected governments that share values similar to the United States for democracy, human rights, and regional stability.”

Given Azerbaijan’s egregious human rights record and recent allegations of election fraud, how does the country qualify for this funding? Does the United States risk the appearance of complicity in the Azerbaijani government’s repression by continuing such assistance?

6.      Many in the international community are calling for sanctions against Azerbaijan in response to the rapidly deteriorating human rights situation.

Would you support financial sanctions and travel restrictions against the Azerbaijani government and any officials who have supported, promoted, or perpetrated human rights abuses?

7.      Recent skirmishes over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh have left 15 soldiers dead. In a video message reacting to the events, U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Heffern said there can be no military solution to the conflict.

How will the U.S. administration respond if the Karabakh conflict escalates?
 

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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