Freeze the Dictator Out

Azerbaijan’s authoritarian president is in Washington this week, plainly hoping for some love — or at least attention — from President Obama. He must not get it.

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What would you do for a photo with President Obama? Hoping to secure one as he visits Washington D.C. this week, Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan, my home country, has released 16 political prisoners. A one-on-one meeting with Obama doesn’t appear to be in the cards, but Aliyev seems to have scored a private meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry today, and he may still be seeking a photo opportunity, meetings with other top U.S. officials, or some other form of validation. If the United States values its commitment to human rights and democracy, it should make sure he doesn’t get it.

Aliyev will be just one of dozens of world leaders who are gathering in Washington this week for a meeting devoted to securing nuclear materials, the Nuclear Security Summit. It’s a particularly important occasion for autocrats like Aliyev, who has ruled Azerbaijan for 13 years, to burnish their reputations back home. We know from lavish public relations spectacles, like the 2015 European Games and the upcoming Formula One European Grand Prix, that Aliyev desperately craves international status. Insiders in D.C. tell us he is eager for that ultimate seal of approval — a few minutes and a photo op with Obama — that would give him the image boost he seeks in the midst of an economic crisis at home.

Despite a powerful lobbying effort in the United States, Aliyev has not been able to secure an invitation to the White House during Obama’s time in office. But even a photo with the U.S. president would be too much recognition unless Aliyev offers clearly stated and comprehensive human rights reforms.

In fact, it is a mistake for a high-ranking U.S. official like John Kerry to meet with Azerbaijan’s leader in the absence of serious reforms. Rewarding his recent release of prisoners instead of pressing for further concrete policy changes simply encourages Aliyev to carry on turning political prisoners into bargaining chips. Giving him any positive publicity at a time when his regime is so brazenly defying its international human rights obligations sends the wrong message about U.S. priorities.

Those rushing to give Aliyev high marks for releasing innocent people from prison should think twice. There is nothing new about this revolving door of political prisoners, this never-ending cycle of convictions and releases. In 2009, Obama noted that in Azerbaijan, journalists are routinely harassed and jailed. The next year, he expressed his hope that the country would move towards democracy and improve its human rights record, calling for the release of two jailed bloggers. Indeed, the pair were eventually released. But since then, many more critics of the regime have been thrown into jail.

I know firsthand about the brutality of Aliyev’s regime. 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. In 2014, I was forced into hiding for my own safety when authorities arrested my colleagues and illegally raided and closed the Institute’s office. The Swiss Embassy provided me with refuge for the longest 10 months of my life, until I was finally permitted to leave the country, escorted by the Swiss foreign minister, in June 2015.

In retribution, the government illegally stripped me of my Azerbaijani citizenship, rendering me stateless. But I am safe and free, living in exile in Switzerland. Others have not been as fortunate. The Azerbaijani authorities have aggressively sought to silence their critics with harassment, threats, blackmail, physical attacks, and imprisonment.

There are still dozens of political prisoners in Azerbaijan, including journalists, bloggers, human rights activists, and politicians — more than in Belarus and Russia combined. Aliyev’s rubber-stamp parliament has adopted regressive legislation restricting fundamental rights and all but eliminating independent NGOs. In September 2014, President Obama commented that the laws in Azerbaijan “make it incredibly difficult for NGOs even to operate.”

Then, on March 17, with this week’s Nuclear Security Summit in sight, President Aliyev pardoned 14 political prisoners. Another was released on parole the same day, and on March 28, the Supreme Court paroled human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev. I am relieved for these 16 political prisoners. Releasing them was the right thing to do, both legally and morally, as none had committed any crimes. But the U.S. should not now reward this hollow victory with White House visits, photo opportunities, or other visible signs of acceptance that Aliyev would no doubt use to cement his rule at home.

U.S. interests are also at stake. The Azerbaijani offices of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Peace Corps, the National Democratic Institute, IREX, and other U.S.-funded pro-democracy organizations have all been shut down over the past three years. Last year, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, demanded the release of journalist Khadija Ismayilova, along with other wrongfully imprisoned female human rights activists. But today, Khadija is still in prison, as is opposition leader Ilgar Mammadov, and many others.

My own brother, photojournalist and blogger Mehman Huseynov, is trapped in Azerbaijan by a politically-motivated travel ban, stemming from an altercation he had with a police officer in May 2012. My dear friend and colleague Rasim Aliyev paid the ultimate price for exposing the Aliyev regime’s brutal repression. Rasim was killed last August, and, though the circumstances of his death are unclear, I believe he was targeted because of his work. He is the fifth journalist to be killed since President Aliyev came to power.

Even as he flouts international conventions, laws, and norms, Aliyev thrives on being publically acknowledged on the world stage, knowing he can use it to gain a sense of legitimacy at home. Any official recognition from the U.S. — including a photo shoot with Obama — should be withheld until Azerbaijan takes real steps to improve its human rights record. All of Azerbaijan’s remaining political prisoners should be immediately and unconditionally released, the criminal investigations into democracy and human rights NGOs dropped, regressive legislation repealed, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty should be allowed to re-open its Baku bureau.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but for Azerbaijanis and international human rights activists, the stakes are much higher. At a time when the international community has very little leverage left to hold Aliyev’s regime accountable, his desire for a photo and some face time with President Obama offers a rare opportunity to press for change in Azerbaijan. Let’s not miss this chance.

In the photo, President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev waves to spectators during the closing ceremony for the Baku 2015 European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan on June 28, 2015.

Photo credit: MATTHIAS HANGST/Getty Images for BEGOC

Emin Huseynov is an Azerbaijani journalist, human rights activist, and founding director of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety.