AZERBAIJAN: US Officials Dispute Azerbaijan Official's Claims.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 19 June 2002

No agreement has been made between the United States government and Azerbaijan's senior religious affairs official requiring the U.S. government to clear any remarks about the religious liberty situation in Azerbaijan with the Azerbaijani State Committee for Relations with Religious Organisations, U.S. government officials have told Keston News Service from Washington. Rafik Aliev, the state committee chairman, had reportedly made this claim in an account to the Baku-based MPA news agency of his recent visit to the U.S. "An agreement was reached during the talks that from now on all problems on violations of freedom on religion in Azerbaijan would be discussed with the Azerbaijani State Committee for Relations with Religious Organisations and reported only after that," MPA reported on 12 June, apparently on the basis of information from Aliev.

On 30 May, Aliev made separate visits in Washington to officials of the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom and staff of the Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency that works with the U.S. Congress and the State Department to monitor human rights in the OSCE region.

"We were not happy to see the MPA account," a State Department official, who preferred not to be named, told Keston from Washington on 17 June. "The notion that we reached any such agreement is absolutely not true. We don't pre-clear our reports with governments, but after the reports are issued we invite governments and others to identify any inaccuracies."

MPA had also quoted Aliev as declaring that "the State Department did not have accurate information about the situation in Azerbaijan's religious sphere and was relying on NGO reports, which quite often did not correspond to reality and which are cited in State Department reports." Aliev complained to the news agency that "local NGOs were providing negative information about their country to international organisations." The State Department official told Keston that the State Department took great pains to make its human rights reports and religious freedom reports as accurate as possible and always liked to discuss them with officials from the relevant country. "Once the report is issued, we say, 'Please read the report.' We invite them to identify any inaccuracies." The official noted that governments have done so only infrequently and said that the religious freedom office had been very pleased to have the opportunity to discuss religious liberty concerns in Azerbaijan with Aliev.

During the meeting at the Helsinki Commission, arranged through the State Department's International Visitors Program, commission staff pressed Aliev on the controversial re-registration drive, which has deprived most religious organisations of their legal status. "He encouraged us to come to him first to get 'correct' information," Knox Thames, counsel on religious freedom at the commission, told Keston on 13 June. "However, we did not agree to speak only with the State Committee. The meeting was frank, but it was clear we approach the issue from a completely different angle than Dr Aliev."

Aliev was also cited by MPA as declaring that in meetings with U.S. officials "there were no pretensions or reproach to Azerbaijan over violations of freedom of belief", despite U.S. government concerns over Azerbaijan's re-registration drive, the legal case which closed down a Baptist congregation in Baku, raids on Protestant churches and treatment of independent Muslim groups.

Keston was unable to reach Aliev by telephone at the State Committee on 14, 17 or 18 June to ask whether he had indeed claimed that U.S. officials had agreed to clear any reports with his office as MPA had reported and to find out which local NGOs had, in his view, produced reports on the religious liberty situation which did not "correspond to reality".

Aliev has repeatedly warned religious leaders within Azerbaijan not to take their complaints about religious liberty violations to foreigners (see KNS 19 March 2002). (END)