Utah lawmakers criticized for praise of Azerbaijan

Two Utah state lawmakers who took a paid trip to Azerbaijan recently praised the former Soviet republic’s commitment to religious freedom, echoing sentiments frequently heard in U.S. state legislatures and disputed by a half-dozen prominent watchdog organizations, The Salt Lake Tribune reports.

Last week, Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, and Rep. Lynn Hemingway, D-Millcreek, read the citation in the Senate and House, respectively, before introducing Azerbaijan Consul General Nasimi Aghayev.

Azerbaijan’s government, Davis told senators, “sees diversity as one of the country’s great strengths.”

Aghayev followed by saying it was appropriate that the citation was read in Utah, “one of the most tolerant and harmonious states.”

His remarks met with applause.

But Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, International Christian Concern, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Pew Research Center and the U.S. State Department have all called into question the policies of Azerbaijan’s government, including those related to religion.

Critics say the resource-rich nation, sandwiched between Russia and Iran and bordered on the west by longtime adversary Armenia, is more dictatorship than democracy, known for jailing activists and journalists and restricting activities of religious minorities.

Davis said he couldn’t pronounce Azerbaijan before his May 2013 visit to Baku, the nation’s capital, where he joined dozens of U.S. lawmakers at a celebration of Azerbaijan’s independence. The Washington Post later reported that trips for members of Congress and their staffs were funded with money funneled to U.S.-based nonprofits by the nation’s state oil company.

Davis and Hemingway said they came away impressed with apparent progress in a region where progress is in short supply.

“All I have done is encourage religious freedom in that country,” Davis said. “Have I taken a stand on their past history? No.”

Nonetheless, a pair of Utah residents with Armenian heritage expressed strong opposition to his citation.

Former state Sen. Bill Barton, whose mother’s family is Armenian, said he thinks Hemingway and Davis, whom he considers a longtime friend, were “wined and dined” into support. Barton said he wrote in an email to several senators that “you didn’t know what was behind this, or you would not have done it.”

Salt Lake City resident Miriam McFadden, who exchanged emails with Davis about her concerns, told The Tribune she was “mortified.”

Even if its scope was narrowed to religious freedoms, she said, Azerbaijan razed thousands of medieval Armenian Christian headstones at a cemetery in Julfa in 2005, later found through satellite imagery to no longer exist after the nation’s government had blocked inspection of the site.

“For us in Utah, where we claim that individual rights are so important … to endorse a country so suppressive and corrupt, it just appalled me,” McFadden said.

Davis said he has not heard of the Julfa incident.

The ANCA formally rebuked the citation. The letter’s author, Western Region executive director Elen Asatryan, said by phone this week that such legislation has become common even though “all it takes is really to just Google ‘Azerbaijan’ ” to see that the lawmakers have been duped.

Asatryan said citations like Utah’s are propaganda fodder for Azerbaijan’s highly controlled media — the Committee to Protect Journalists most recently ranked Azerbaijan as the world’s fifth-most-censored press — to burnish Aliyev’s image.

Days before Davis and Hemingway read their citation in Utah, ANCA said Idaho Rep. Thomas Dayley withdrew a similarly worded resolution because it mobilized 90 local activists to share concerns.

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