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Bush Praises Muslim Ally

President hosts leader of Azerbaijan, an oil-rich nation with a spotty human rights record.

April 29, 2006|James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush praised Azerbaijan's president Friday despite human rights problems documented by the State Department, and said the country had a "very important role to play" in meeting global energy needs.

Bush met in the Oval Office with President Ilham Aliyev, who succeeded his father 2 1/2 years ago after elections the State Department said suffered from "numerous, serious irregularities."

With Aliyev sitting in an armchair next to him, Bush held out Azerbaijan as "a modern Muslim country that is able to provide for its citizens, that understands that democracy is the wave of the future."

The meeting reflected the difficulty the administration faces as it seeks to maintain U.S. access to oil and gas supplies from countries that may be unstable or unreliable, often because of corruption or human rights abuses.

A year ago, Azerbaijan celebrated the opening of an 1,100-mile pipeline from its capital, Baku, on the Caspian Sea, that runs through Georgia to a Turkish port on the Mediterranean. The event was important enough to the U.S. that Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman attended.

The pipeline created a link that bypasses Iran, Russia and neighboring Armenia, and it is expected to carry 1 million barrels of oil a day to Western markets by 2008.

Bush expressed his appreciation to Aliyev several times, thanking him for support in the war in Iraq and for his help in achieving "what we all want, which is energy security."

Aliyev replaced his father, Heydar A. Aliyev, in October 2003, in an election that also drew sharp criticism from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which saw evidence of ballot-stuffing and a falsified vote count.

Aliyev, speaking English, said his three-day U.S. visit would be important in developing Azerbaijan as "a modern, secular, democratic country. He said his nation shared "the same values" as the United States.

The annual State Department human rights report, issued in March, recognized generally effective efforts by civilian authorities to control the security forces, and acknowledged that the president had instructed "national and local government officials to comply with international election standards" in November's parliamentary elections.

But, it said, "the government's human rights record remained poor, and it continued to commit numerous abuses."

The report cites "torture and beating of persons in custody, leading to four deaths," as well as arbitrary arrest and detention, particularly of political opponents, harsh prison conditions and corruption in the judiciary.

Aliyev responded with a broad grin when Bush, at the end of a photo session that concluded their meeting, added a word of congratulations. Bush noted the wedding this weekend of Aliyev's daughter.

"It's a major sacrifice for the president to be here during the planning phases of the wedding," Bush said. "And we wish you and the first lady all the best, and more importantly, we wish your daughter all the best."

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