The Obama administration’s decision to meet with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev on the sidelines of last month’s nuclear summit has sparked a debate over the country human rights record and the decision to welcome an authoritarian leader who has drawn heat from critics — including the U.S. State Department — for his record back home.
In an interview, Azerbaijan’s top diplomat in Washington insisted that his government is the victim of an ongoing smear campaign promoted by its rivals in the region, including Armenia.
“We are not against criticism if it’s constructive,” said Ambassador Elin Suleymanov.
“This obsessive focus on Azerbaijan clearly represents a specific agenda,” he said. “The recent escalation of violence in the region. The recent reaction to the positive visit by President Aliyev to Washington D.C., shows that we have our share of enemies and ill-wishers. So don’t be surprised that we receive such heavy criticism.”
But some of the harshest criticism surrounding Mr. Aliyev’s visit to Washington came from an Azerbaijani journalist and human rights activist.
“I know firsthand about the brutality of Aliyev’s regime,” wrote Emin Huseynov wrote in the article published by Foreign Policy while the Azerbaijani president was in Washington late last month.
“As a journalist and human rights activist in Azerbaijan, and as director of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety — the country’s leading media rights organization — I was targeted repeatedly, including being beaten so badly by police officers that I now suffer from permanent hearing loss and other health problems,” Mr. Huseynaev wrote.
He also accused Mr. Aliyev releasing 16 political prisoners on the eve of his visit to Washington solely in hopes of appeasing the White House and securing a meeting with Mr. Obama.
Washington, the activist argued, is well aware of rights violations occurring in Azerbaijan and should be wary about providing the Aliyev government with meetings or any other “form of validation.”
Mr. Suleymanov said his country had made marked progress in its quarter-century as an independent nation, but added, “We don’t claim perfection.”
“Whether people are in jail or people are being released, people are still unhappy,” he said. “Whatever you do, people are still unhappy.”
The ambassador added that his nation has equal rights for all minorities, and said Muslims, Jews and Christians live in harmony.
Azerbaijan is “a Muslim country which provides total equality for women and tries to build the right welfare for its people,” he said, adding that 75 percent of the nation’s people are on the internet, which is “totally unrestricted” by the government.
“In the former Soviet Union, Azerbaijan is the most stable, independent and the most prosperous country,” Mr. Suleymanov said. “Have we achieved everything. Perhaps not.”