Bill Introduced in U.S. Would Hold Azerbaijan Accountable for Free Expression Crackdown
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The introduction of a bill in the U.S. Congress that would impose visa sanctions on Azerbaijan’s senior leadership is an important move to hold Azerbaijan accountable for its escalating crackdown on journalists and human rights defenders, PEN American Center said in a statement today.
The Azerbaijan Democracy Act (H.R. 4264), introduced by Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ), would deny U.S. visas for high-level Azerbaijani officials involved in human rights abuses, their immediate family members and individuals with whom they have close financial ties, as well as security, law enforcement, and judicial officials involved in “persecution or harassment.” Smith, who chairs the Helsinki Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, introduced the bill during the Commission’s hearing on the persecution of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, whose case is emblematic of Azerbaijan’s broader crackdown on media freedom and access to information. Ismayilova, winner of the 2015 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, was arrested on December 5, 2014 and sentenced to 7.5 years in prison in September of this year on baseless charges as retribution for her reporting, which exposed corruption within the highest echelons of the Azerbaijani government.
“While brave journalists like Khadija languish behind bars, the officials who put her there should not be allowed to travel freely,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of Free Expression Programs at PEN. “The Azerbaijan Democracy Act is a much needed measure to put Azerbaijani authorities on notice that their repressive tactics are being closely watched and provides a tool with which to hold the government responsible for its escalation of human rights violations.”
Smith’s legislation comes amid increasing criticism of Azerbaijan’s shameful human rights record and was introduced on the same day that the Council of Europe initiated an official inquiry into Azerbaijan’s compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights.
Founded in 1922, PEN American Center is an association of 4,000 U.S. writers working to bring down barriers to free expression worldwide. www.pen.org