UN Rights Committee Said Set To Censure Azerbaijan

By Robert Evans

July 22 2009

GENEVA, July 22 (Reuters) – United Nations experts are set to censure
energy-rich Azerbaijan over its human rights record after suggesting
it was in denial over violations of global rights pacts, officials
and diplomats said on Wednesday.

They said the critique, which could be harsh, was likely to be
formulated in recommendations to the government in Baku on what it
should do to clean up its act. It would be issued on July 31 by the
U.N.’s watchdog Human Rights Committee.

"After comments made by committee members this week, it is clear
they are going to be tough over attacks on independent journalists,
on freedom of expression and on state control of judges," said one
official, who asked not to be named.

The 18-member committee, a body made up of independent academics and
lawyers from developed and developing countries, met on Monday and
Tuesday to quiz an Azeri government team on what was happening in
the former Soviet republic.

An official U.N. report on the session said the committee questioned
the team on killings and arrests of journalists and suicides of others
in police custody, on bans on opposition rallies, on violence against
women and attacks on homosexuals.

Khalaf Khalafov, Azerbaijan’s deputy foreign minister, told the
committee that journalists were only arrested for violating the law
and that any interference with the media or freedom of expression
was illegal, according to the report.

One committee expert told Khalafov, the account said, that his country
"appeared to be in a state of denial" on police violence, and officials
present said the scepticism was clearly shared by other members of
the body.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) with offices in Baku, including
the chairman of an Azeri group on protection of journalists, told
reporters after the session that the country appeared sliding back
to Soviet-era practices.

And during the committee discussions, Khalafov argued that the traces
of the Soviet "totalitarian past" when, he said, the Azeri judiciary
had been subject to "the dictatorship of the proletariat," would not
disappear overnight.

The committee session was held as a top-level delegation from the
European Union, with which Azerbaijan is seeking to boost economic
relations especially in the energy sector, was expressing alarm in
Baku about rights.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who headed the EU team, told
reporters there on Monday that he had expressed concern to President
Ilham Aliyev over the arrest of two opposition bloggers who were
accused of hooliganism.

At the same time, ambassadors of the 27 EU member states voiced
disquiet "about the condition of human rights and freedoms" in the
country where Aliyev and his late father have held power almost
uninterrupted for nearly three decades.

But at a Geneva news conference, NGOs said they feared the EU was
unlikely to go beyond words in its criticism of Azerbaijan, a key
supplier of oil and gas from Caspian Sea fields offering an alternative
to energy from Russia.

"In our experience, the countries most likely to take a strong stance
are the United States and (non-EU member) Norway — they have their
own oil," said Florian Irminger of the Geneva-based Human Rights
House Foundation. (Editing by Jonathan Lynn)