President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan on Wednesday brushed off criticism of his country’s human rights record after talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“Nobody is being persecuted because of a critical opinion. There is no censorship, the internet is free,” Aliyev said during a joint press conference with Merkel in Berlin.
Aliyev added that according to an opinion poll, 90 per cent of Azeris support him.
The Azeri leader has come under fire from human rights organizations for a recent crackdown on activists and journalists.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), authorities in the country on the Caspian Sea arrested and imprisoned more than 30 government critics in 2014 alone.
High-profile cases include activist Leyla Yunus and her husband Arif, as well as Khadija Ismayilova, a journalist for Radio Liberty.
“The charges against these activists are politically motivated. Merkel could make a difference in securing their freedom,” HRW’s Europe and Central Asia director Hugh Williamson said.
Merkel said that Azerbaijan should respect the Human Rights Convention because it is a member of the Council of Europe. Merkel added that non-governmental organizations need certainty that they can work on “secure legal grounds.”
Gas-rich Azerbaijan is seen as an important energy provider for Europe. In 2013 it agreed to build the Trans Adriatic Pipeline, which is projected to deliver some ten billion cubic metres of gas per year.
Aliyev was on a two-day visit to Berlin. His talks with Merkel focused on energy issues.