Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Part 1: Political and Human Rights Conditions

Azerbaijan is a republic with a presidential form of government. The president dominates the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. The government's human rights record remains poor and worsened in some areas in 2008. The government restricted the public's right to peacefully change the government in the presidential election, although there were improvements in some technical aspects of election administration. Torture and beating of persons in police and military custody resulted in three deaths in 2008, and security forces continue to act with impunity. Prison conditions, despite improvements in infrastructure, generally remain harsh and life threatening. Arbitrary arrest and detention, particularly of individuals considered by the government to be political opponents, and lengthy pretrial detention continue. The government imprisons persons for politically motivated reasons. There is pervasive corruption, including in the judiciary and in law enforcement. Restrictions on freedom of assembly continue. Restrictions on media freedom and political participation worsened in 2008, notably through the removal of Voice of America, Radio Liberty, and the BBC from FM frequencies. The government imposes restrictions on the activities of some Christian and Muslim religious groups. Cases of violence against women have been reported. Cases of trafficking in persons continue, although the government has taken some modest steps to address the problem.

Part 2: U.S. Government Democracy Objectives

The U.S. human rights and democracy strategy focuses on promoting five key sectors of democratic development: democratic political processes; the rule of law, including an independent judiciary and the fight against corruption; respect for media freedom; respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms; and an engaged, empowered, and educated citizenry.

To advance these priorities, the United States maintained the key priorities of increasing the accountability and transparency of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The United States also promoted a presidential election in 2008 that would meet international democratic standards, including a level playing field for all political parties. The United States focused on promoting freedom of the press; maintaining support for the development of an independent, professional media; and exploring and supporting alternative methods for dissemination of objective news and information. The United States worked to build the capacity of civil society and expand civic participation. Finally, the United States continued to assist the government in its fight against trafficking in persons.

Part 3: Supporting Top Priorities and Other Aspects of Human Rights and Democratic Governance

Since December 2006, the United States has pursued these objectives through a high-level democracy and human rights dialogue with the government, led by the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. To supplement and expand this dialogue, U.S. officials at all levels, including the ambassador, regularly meet with government officials, representatives of political parties, a range of human rights and democracy activists, media representatives, and religious leaders. High-level U.S. officials and members of Congress visiting the country reinforce U.S. advocacy for democracy and human rights. Promoting democracy and protecting human rights remains the primary focus of U.S. public diplomacy programming activities. The ambassador and other U.S. officials regularly focus on democracy and human rights in public remarks. In addition, the United States utilizes small grants and a variety of other programs to foster greater understanding of democracy and human rights. The United States places particular emphasis on gender and youth issues in all programs.

Many U.S. diplomatic and programming efforts focus on promoting democratic political processes. In 2008 the United States encouraged a presidential election that would meet international standards, including respect for political pluralism and fundamental freedoms. The United States reinforced its advocacy with government officials through assistance aimed at strengthening the ability of political parties to develop platforms and strategies that were responsive to citizen concerns, supporting the Central Election Commission’s efforts to improve the electoral code, building the capacity of judges and election commissioners to respond to election-related grievances, supporting domestic and international observation efforts, and stimulating public interest in and understanding of election-related issues through public debates involving political party representatives and journalists. The United States also continues to support the development of a transparent and accountable parliament. To facilitate development of a responsive legislature, the United States works with the parliament to open constituency offices, trains members of parliament to respond to constituency requests and issues, provides greater citizen access to official and draft legislation, and promotes civil society interaction with the legislature. In advance of the March 2009 constitutional referendum on the elimination of presidential term limits among other provisions, the United States highlighted the importance of conditions for an unfettered and open debate and a free and fair vote.

To promote an independent judiciary, the United States supplements its diplomatic efforts with assistance in training new judges about their role as neutral arbiters in adversarial court proceedings, strategies for effectively handling complex criminal cases, and European Convention on Human Rights standards.

U.S. officials at all levels regularly engage the government on the importance of media freedom, including the need to decriminalize defamation. Senior U.S. officials raise concerns regarding the unjust imprisonment of journalists. In cases of government action to pressure the independent media, including the government's decision to remove Radio Liberty, Voice of America, and BBC from FM radio as of January 1, 2009, senior U.S. officials raise their concerns with the relevant authorities, and the United States issues public statements regarding these incidents. Senior U.S. officials urge the government to investigate and bring to justice individuals--whether members of the security forces or others--who are responsible for physical attacks on journalists, including those responsible for the unsolved 2005 murder of prominent independent journalist Elmar Huseynov. U.S. assistance continues to support the professionalization of media. For example, the United States provided technical assistance to strengthen the business management, broadcasting operations, and program development of independent outlets, and supported free Internet access and training to the public. U.S. assistance also funded training for journalists on mixing new technologies with traditional media approaches by promoting the development of news/information Web sites and Web blogging. Through long-term academic exchanges, U.S. programs supported the educational development of journalists. In other programs, the United States continues to support initiatives to increase the independence of the media and to improve advocacy on behalf of media rights and freedom of information. The United States seeks to assist reformers to effectively monitor government harassment and interference in this area.

The United States provides technical assistance that supports civil society's anticorruption efforts, enhances the capacity of government agencies and officials to fight and prevent corruption, and advances legislative reforms consistent with the country’s international obligations to prevent, investigate and prosecute corruption. U.S. assistance supports legal aid and advocacy centers and a traveling lawyers program, which provided over 1,100 citizens with assistance in filing and pursuing anticorruption and other complaints in 2008.

U.S. officials urge their counterparts to respect the right of freedom of assembly and to authorize peaceful demonstrations. To emphasize the importance of this freedom, U.S. officials in the country monitor police conduct at political rallies. When attempts to hold such rallies are prevented, the United States voices its concerns to all levels of the government regarding the right of citizens to organize and demonstrate peacefully. The United States also promotes freedom of association; for example, when a domestic nonpartisan election monitoring organization was registered and then de-registered in 2008, senior U.S. officials urged government officials to reinstate this organization's registration and allow its members to monitor the presidential election. The United States encourages respect for religious freedom, including the right to practice religion without interference or restriction. U.S. officials stress the importance of respecting religious freedom in meetings with government officials and highlight the presence of religious tolerance and Islam in America throughout the country.

The United States supports the development of civil society diplomatically and programmatically. Consistent U.S. engagement with the government contributed to the withdrawal of a lawsuit in March 2009 brought by a senior official against a prominent human rights defender. U.S. officials engage in dialogue with NGOs supporting political and economic reform. The United States provides technical assistance, grants, and exchange programs to support the activities of local NGOs, to encourage dialogue between the government and civil society, to educate the government and public about democratic practices, and to improve local government accountability to citizens. The United States works with more than 100 NGOs to develop strategic plans, implement advocacy campaigns, increase public participation, and facilitate discussions between citizens and local officials on specific community concerns. U.S. assistance continues to support civic education activities. In 2008, these activities enhanced the civic participation, knowledge, and skills of over 570 civil society organizations on public advocacy and watch-dog campaigns, financial management, administration, project development, and media relations skills. In addition, the United States provides small grants to local NGOs that promote human rights, a free and professional media, improved governance and the rule of law, free and fair elections, community activism, and civic responsibility.

The United States promotes respect for the rule of law and human rights diplomatically and programmatically. U.S. officials often monitor high-profile court proceedings; for example, in 2008 U.S. officials monitored the court cases of several journalists and human rights defenders standing trial on charges related to their work. In addition to promoting judicial independence, the United States funds programs to increase the professionalism and skills of prosecutors, the defense bar, young lawyers, and female lawyers. U.S. programs emphasize development of adversarial processes consistent with Council of Europe norms, including balancing the interests of the State with the rights of detainees and defendants. The United States continues to work with law schools on curriculum development and new teaching methodologies and supports a legal clinic in the exclave of Nakhchivan. To address human rights abuses by law enforcement officers, U.S. officials urge the government to ensure that police comply with human rights standards and to hold police officials accountable for torture, abuse, or misconduct. U.S. officials regularly visit prisons and detention facilities to focus attention on poor conditions. To combat human trafficking, the United States supports training on antitrafficking in persons legislation and victim identification strategies and promotes antitrafficking measures and preventive mechanisms in meetings with government officials. U.S. officials regularly engage with the international community to coordinate antitrafficking efforts.