A few days ago I wrote about a visit to Washington, D.C., by what I described as a bogus human rights group from Azerbaijan. The group, called the Association for Civil Society Development in Azerbaijan (ACSDA), was making the rounds here in the capitol and held a media event at the National Press Club.
After my piece was published I received a message from Bob Lawrence, who heads the lobbying firm that organized the visit. “There are,” he said, “some justifiably hurt feelings here.” Lawrence also said that he would try to put me in touch with members of the group, but they declined to speak with me, becoming particularly sensitive after my original story was picked up by Azeri newspapers. Lawrence defended the group as genuinely independent activists and thinkers.
But Peter Zalmayev, who formerly was a program manager at the International League for Human Rights and who has worked closely with major independent Azeri social and political groups, said my original story had it right. The ACSDA, he said, claims to be an umbrella organization representing a number of reputable groups–but many of them are simply shell organizations, sometimes just one-man shows. “It’s a front operation,” said Zalmayev, “that helps the government counter criticism from legitimate non-governmental organizations.”
Zalmayev described the visiting Azeri outfit as a “GONGO,” or Government Organized Non Governmental Organization. “These date to the Soviet era,” he told me. “ There were genuine dissidents and the Communist governments learned quickly to counterattack with GONGOs. You see a lot of them today [in Eastern Europe], especially Russia.”
One of the groups that makes up the ACSDA is called Human Rights in the XXI Century. Even a cursory glance at the group’s web site makes clear that it serves as an apologist for the crooked, repressive regime of Ilham Aliyev. The current U.S. State Department report on global human rights says: “The government’s human rights record remained poor, and it continued to commit numerous abuses . . . Arbitrary arrest and detention, particularly of individuals considered by the government to be political opponents, and lengthy pretrial detention continued. The government continued to imprison persons for politically motivated reasons.”
Yet the hacks at Human Rights in the XXI Century essentially argue (in a fine throwback to the Soviet era) that the whole issue of political prisoners, and repression in general, has been manufactured by enemies of the state. “Since 1995, Azerbaijan has become stronger and continued the democratic development,” says a report on the group’s website. “The government of Azerbaijan abolished the censorship of press, death penalty, and established a legislative basis for the creation and activity of democratic institutions.” Outsiders, says the report, believe that Azeri government authorities lock up their foes and generally conduct “uncivilized struggle against its political opponents.” But that’s just propaganda from “leading figures of the parties which are in the opposition to the present government.”
The report identifies a number of these traitors as social democrats and accuses them of conspiring with political allies in Europe to spread false information about Azerbaijan. “Is there anyone who is not aware of the mutual cooperation of the world’s social democracy movement?” the report asks. More ominously, the report continues, a “tragic event” occurred in Europe. “A person classified as a ‘political prisoner’ and released from punishment” due to complaints of international human rights groups “murdered a young family of three (husband, wife and the baby) with the purpose of robbery.”
Another of the ACSDA members is called the Caspian Partnership for the Future. If you go to that group’s website. You’ll find headshots that look like they were taken from personal ads, and you’ll also learn that its president, Rustam F. Mammadov worked from 1997 to 2004 as:
Apparatus of the President of the Azerbaijan Republic, Social-Political Relations Department as the head of the Section for Azerbaijani Diaspora Affairs and NGO’s.
It sounds like a hell of a job.
I could continue for quite a while but it hardly seems necessary. I am grateful that Mr. Lawrence contacted me, but with all due respect it looks to me like he’s trying to put lipstick on a pig.