THE FIRST lady of Azerbaijan, Mehriban Aliyeva, recently was in Paris, where she opened a photo exhibition titled “Azerbaijan, Land of Tolerance.” An inquiring reporter asked if Azerbaijan is really such a place, noting that its jails are full of political prisoners. “How can you say that?” Ms. Aliyeva responded tartly. “It’s not true.” She urged the reporter to “get correct information.” The reporter then asked her to comment on the imprisonment of human rights advocate Leyla Yunus and journalist Khadija Ismayilova. No answer; the first lady turned her back while security guards pushed the journalist away.
If she wants “correct information,” perhaps Ms. Aliyeva and her husband, President Ilham Aliyev, should read the resolution on Azerbaijan approved Sept. 10 by the European Parliament. It declares that the human rights situation in Azerbaijan has “deteriorated continuously over the last few years,” with “growing intimidation and repression” of rights defenders, journalists and others in civil society. “Peaceful protesters have been effectively banned from demonstrating in central Baku since 2006,” the resolution states, and journalists are subject to “continuous intimidation and harassment,” among them Emin Milli, founder of the online broadcast news outlet Meydan TV, who has received death threats.
Need more “correct information”? Azerbaijan recently forced the closure of the offices of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in Baku, silencing another important channel for monitoring democracy and human rights. According to the European Parliament, “Azerbaijan has suffered the greatest decline in democratic governance in all of Eurasia over the past ten years.” And the European Union’s dialogue with Azerbaijan on human rights has “not made any substantial progress.”
The day after this indictment of Azerbaijan’s record was approved, the government in Baku canceled a planned European Commission delegation visit that was supposed to discuss a proposed strategic partnership agreement with Azerbaijan. A few days later, Mr. Aliyev met with some schoolchildren in Baku. He declared that vague external enemies “want to subjugate Azerbaijan itself, force us to live according to their instructions.” Mr. Aliyev added, “Today Azerbaijan is in good hands, no one can put pressure on us, affect our policy.” Noting the refugee crisis in Europe, the Azeri strongman asked of the Europeans, “Where is your tolerance and kindness, generosity, where are your values?”
Mr. Aliyev has long believed he could repress dissent at home while fending off criticism from abroad. He has lavished millions of dollars on overseas goodwill efforts. More millions were spent to host the European Games this year in Baku, at which the athletes blithely ignored the human rights abuses.
But Mr. Aliyev cannot sustain this forever. The horrid treatment of Ms. Yunus and her husband, Arif, and that of Ms. Ismayilova, have gained widespread attention around the world and won’t be papered over by trendy photo exhibits in Paris.
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