BAKU—The new US Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Robert Cekuta, who arrived in Baku on Thursday, was told by scores of Azeri citizens on social media to visit a prison near Baku where many recently arrested activists are detained, upon his arrival. The bold gesture from Azeri activists came after a post as well as a video on the US Embassy’s Facebook page asked Azerbaijani Facebook users to “vote on his first cultural excursion!”
The overwhelming majority of comments under the post urge the Ambassador to take his first visit to the Kurdakhani prison near the capital Baku, where many of the country’s political prisoners are held. Because so many prominent intellectuals, civil activists, and well-educated youth leaders have been imprisoned in the Kurdakhani jail, it has been dubbed by some as “Kur De Khani University.”
The Embassy’s post specifically referred to a “cultural excursion” and the Ambassador’s video named a few examples of cultural and natural sites, such as Yanardag, a continuously burning natural gas fire on a hill. But they seem to have received a different response from what they expected. The Azerbaijani public appears to have clearly spoken out in favor of paying attention to the rapidly deteriorating situation with human rights in Azerbaijan.
Some even scoffed at the suggestion of going sightseeing in the midst of an ongoing severe crackdown on civil society, including US radio station Radio Liberty and other Western-backed institutions.
One commenter expressed hopes that “[The] new Ambasador [sic] will not be bowing before the statue of Aliyev,” referring to the infamous visit by Ambassador Richard Morningstar, Cekuta’s predecessor. Morningstar stirred controversy when at his first public appearance in Azerbaijan as the US Ambassador he bowed down to a giant statue of Heydar Aliyev — the late Azerbaijani dictator and former Soviet Communist Politburo boss and KGB general, who is the founder of the ruling regime and also is the father of the current president.
The US Embassy in Baku has also come under criticism recently for failing to provide adequate help to the persecuted prominent Azerbaijani rights activist, Emin Huseynov, whose wife is an American citizen. An article in Foreign Policy magazine says that Huseynov tried to seek help from the US Embassy in Baku in face of an imminent imprisonment but was denied protection. He had to go to the Swiss Embassy instead, where he has received protection and has been hiding for the past six months. The Foreign Policy article also cites the case of a US citizen Said Nuri, a former Azerbaijani dissident, who has been detained during his recent visit to Azerbaijan and complained about the lack of adequate help from the US Embassy there.