Azerbaijan on Thursday blamed Armenian-American advocacy groups for legislation that would deny U.S. visas to senior Azerbaijani officials due to what a U.S. lawmaker has called Baku's “appalling human rights violations.”
Chris Smith, the Republican chairman of the U.S. Congress’s Helsinki Commission, introduced the bill, titled the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015, in the House of Representatives on Wednesday.
“The human rights situation has seriously deteriorated in Azerbaijan, causing damage to its relations with the United States and other countries, and has damaged its own society by imprisoning or exiling some of its best and brightest citizens," Smith told a commission hearing held in conjunction with the announcement of the bill.
In a statement issued by the commission, the lawmaker said "the United States can no longer remain blind to the appalling human rights violations that are taking place in Azerbaijan."
The legislation would deny entry to -- and revoke current U.S visas held by -- individuals "in the senior leadership of the government of Azerbaijan," as well as members of their "immediate family." Individuals who derive "significant financial benefit" due to their ties to senior officials, as well as security, law enforcement, and judicial officials involved in "persecution or harassment" of journalists, activists, and opposition or religious groups would also face these sanctions.
The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry strongly condemned the proposed sanctions. “Congressman Chris Smith has always been known for his pro-Armenian position and been under the influence of the Armenian lobby in the U.S.,” the ministry spokesman, Hikmet Hajiyev, told the APA news agency.
“There is no doubt that this document, in which every word and phrase is directed against Azerbaijan, was prepared by Armenian lobbying circles in the U.S. ahead of congressional elections,” Hajiyev claimed.
“Such bias can have a negative impact on the U.S.’s image in Azerbaijan,” he said.
Smith’s bill comes as Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's government faces increased criticism about rights abuses. The authorities in Baku have jailed several journalists and rights activists during the past year on charges such as tax evasion, illegal business activity, and hooliganism. Rights groups say the charges are retribution for opposition activities and criticism of senior government officials, accusations that Azerbaijani officials deny.
Aliyev and his administration have for years blamed the worldwide “Armenian lobby” for Western criticism of their poor human rights record. “The Armenians of the world, the Armenian lobby have picked us as a target, and they have been joined by hypocritical and corrupt politicians sponsored by them,” Aliyev charged while chairing a cabinet meeting in July.
“This is especially true for Western politicians,” he said. “Congressmen, senators, deputies, Islamophobic politicians, and other elements, who have built their lives with Armenian money, have declared a war on Azerbaijan.”
Aliyev described “the Armenian lobby” as his nation’s number one enemy when his regime faced growing international scrutiny ahead of a Eurovision song contest held in Baku three years ago. The Azerbaijani government has since toughened its crackdown on dissent, jailing dozens of opposition members, civic activists and journalists.