U.S. congressional hearing discussed Azerbaijan's political prisoners

Washington/16.02.18/Turan: Top international human rights and media watchdog groups on Thursday urged the U.S, Congress members to "adopt" Azerbaijan's imprisoned journalists and other political prisoners to advocate for their release as part of a congressional initiative known as "Defending Freedoms Project", TURAN's Washington correspondent reports.

Speaking at a hearing before the Congress' bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, Melina Milazzo, Freedom Now's Washington D.C. director, reminded that since 2014, the Azerbaijani government has overseen a large-scale crackdown on civil society in the country, imprisoning at last count 160 individuals. Some of these individuals include prisoners who have been detained for several years, such as political opposition leader Ilgar Mammadov, youth activist Ilkin Rustamzadeh, and journalist Seymur Hezi. Others have been arrested more recently, such as youth activists Bayram Mammadov and Giyas Ibrahimov or journalist Afgan Mukhtarli.

"We have seen the Azerbaijani government respond to pressure from the U.S. Congress before, such as when it released journalist Mehman Aliyev in November 2017 after Senator Durbin introduced an amendment withholding U.S. State Department funding from Azerbaijan as long as Mehman remained in prison. However, we need more Congressional voices to speak for the many individuals Azerbaijan has silenced," she said, asking the Commission to consider adopting a prisoner from Azerbaijan and be their voice," she said.

Launched in 2012, the Defending Freedoms Project allows Congress members to focus on individual prisoners of conscience, standing in solidarity with them, following their plight and publicly advocating for their release. By "adopting" prisoners, lawmakers can also increase attention and support for them on an international scale.

In her testimony Margaux Ewen, the North America director of Reporters Without Borders, also recommended adding journalists Seymur Khazi and Afgan Mukhtarly to the Project"s list ​, which she praised as an example of the ​congressional spirit ​that is "​so powerful​"​ when put into practice.

Khazi, a reporter for the opposition daily Azadlig, was arrested on August 29, 2014 and sentenced to five years in prison for "aggravated hooliganism." He was a nominee for RSF"s 2016 press freedom prize.

Mukhtarly, an investigative journalist and activist, was kidnapped in Georgia on May 29, 2017 where he was exiled and forcibly taken back to Azerbaijan where he was immediately imprisoned. He was accused of "smuggling", "illegal crossing of the border" and "refusal to obey the police".

Mukhtarly is diabetic and suffering from hypertension, Ewen reminded. In his speech, Congressman James McGovern, co-chairman of the Commission, pledged that he and his fellow lawmakers will "make sure" that the prisoners of conscience ​world wide ​are not forgotten.


Washington, D.C.

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