The “deep state” links developed between Houston, Washington, and Baku during the heady early 90s are kept alive today through the Council of Advisors to the U.S.–Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce, since 1996 the central forum for conducting serious U.S.-Azeri business. Past and present USACC board members include the above names, plus Henry Kissinger, John Sununu, and Richard Perle.
|An operational phone booth in the southern city of Astara, bordering Iran.
Most of the USACC’s business is low-key and conducted in private. But occasionally the group will bring out the black ties and notify the media. In December of 2006, the group hosted a lavish dinner at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington for Mehriban Aliyeva, the First Lady of Azerbaijan. The evening was co-chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, with a keynote address delivered by Senator Richard Lugar, who was present to receive the USACC Freedom Support Award.
To understand why the existence of a USACC Freedom Support Award is a sick joke on par with the “plant a tree” sign in the Balakhani oil fields, you have to zoom way in from the bird’s eye view of the Grand Chessboard and leave the executive suites of the oil majors. You have to talk to an Azeri who is tired of being robbed by the country’s bloodthirsty Borats to pay for ugly steel-and-glass monuments to the memory of Heydar Aliyev.
* * * * *
There is no shortage of examples to illustrate the sad state of freedom and human rights in Azerbaijan. There is Heydar Aliyev’s one-time rival, Rasul Guliyev, forced into exile in 1996. There are the opposition party activists who have had their offices shut down and are routinely beaten, jailed, and, according to Human Rights Watch, tortured. Increasingly, there are the journalists who are jailed and assaulted for doing their job.
In the run-up to the presidential election this October that Aliyev is certain to win, an already appalling human rights situation is getting worse for Azeri journalists. The parties allowed to participate (besides the ruling New Azerbaijan Party) are, as in Russia, assigned by the government.
At the end of 2007, nine reporters and editors were sitting in jails, mostly for the “crime” of satire or alleged libel. Five were recently released, but four remain behind bars on what are widely believed to be false or trumped-up charges. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Azerbaijan is “the leading jailer of journalists in Europe and Central Asia.” That’s quite an accomplishment considering the neighborhood, one that suggests the thought experiment of imagining Dick Cheney co-emceeing a black-tie dinner in honor of Ludmila Putin, with U.S. Senator Sam Brownback on hand to accept a U.S.-Russia Chamber of Commerce Freedom Support Award.
The last few months have seen an acceleration of unsavory incidents that are beginning to raise the profile of Azerbaijan in human rights circles. Most prominent among them, a reporter for the Azadlyq newspaper, Agil Khalil, was stabbed in the chest and left in serious condition while reporting on a shady land deal involving government officials. As with a similar case last year in which the editor-in-chief of the newspaper Gyundelik Azerbaijan barely escaped an assassination attempt, no police investigation has been opened.
Accoring to Baku-based journalist Rovshan Ismayilov, the attempted murder was “most probably” carried out by “some forces within the government,” possibly in contemptuous response to a recent State Department human rights report critical of Azerbaijan.