Continued from page 1

The crackdown is aimed at silencing government critics and often uses “trumped up” charges, including hooliganism, weapons and drugs possession, said Giorgi Gogia, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“The government has had a poor human rights record for a while, but for the past year and a half, we have seen a change for the worse,” Mr. Gogia said. “The government is tightening the screws. Little by little, the islands of freedom are disappearing.”

Azerbaijani officials brush off the criticisms, pointing to their strong support of American interests in the region and their friendly relations with Israel.

The Obama administration is monitoring developments in Azerbaijan, straddling a careful line of embracing an ally in a critical region while prodding it behind closed doors and in public to enhance freedoms.

On July 16, Thomas Melia, deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, testified before the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, at a hearing titled “Troubled Partner: Growing Authoritarianism in Azerbaijan.”

The “political environment for human rights and fundamental freedoms more broadly has worsened since at least last November, when the [national assembly] passed amendments significantly increasing fines on participants and organizers of unauthorized protests,” Mr. Melia told the panel.

In September, the Aliyev government barred a delegation led by Mr. Melia from traveling to Azerbaijan to observe preparations for the presidential election.

“We will continue to urge respect for fundamental freedoms and the rule of law, including due process before, during and after the presidential contest,” a U.S. official said, speaking only on the condition of anonymity.

The official said the administration has called on Azerbaijan to ensure “a free, fair, and transparent electoral process that reflects the will of the people.”

‘We are not perfect’

Azerbaijan’s leadership bristles at suggestions it is unfriendly to freedom.

At the Helsinki Commission hearing in July, for instance, the Azerbaijani ambassador to the United States took strong exception to his president being labeled authoritarian.

“I respectfully reject the wrongful claim about going to authoritarianism in Azerbaijan,” Ambassador Elin Suleymanov said. “We do not accept that. What is going on in Azerbaijan is a truly independent nation with a vibrant political system and a free-market economy.”

He conceded that there is room for improvement: “Just like every nation on Earth, we are not perfect.”

Azerbaijan won independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991. In 1993, Mr. Aliyev’s father, Heydar Aliyev, was elected president. A decade later, in October 2003, the younger Mr. Aliyev was elected to succeed his ailing father.

Story Continues →