Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met Wednesday with a prominent Azerbaijani opposition activist who was just freed after serving a year in prison, and prodded the oil-rich Caucasus nation to do far more to advance democracy and human rights.
Nearing the end of a weeklong Europe trip, Clinton said she spoke with the Harvard-educated Bakhtiyar Hajiyev and urged him to continue his pro-democracy campaigning. She expressed hope that Hajiyev "will be able to continue his work without interference."
Clinton met several other opposition members, too, after lunching with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and other top government officials and stressing "the importance of fostering a vibrant civil society and embracing democratic reforms."
"We urge the government to respect their citizens' right to express their views peacefully and to release those who have been detained for doing so, in print or on the streets, or for defending human rights," she told reporters.
Hajiyev, 30, served prison time on charges of evading military service. Before that, he led Arab Spring-style demonstrations in the authoritarian country, leading supporters to say he was jailed in retaliation. In any case, his release on Monday spared Aliyev's government some embarrassment as it tried to cast itself as a progressive European nation.
Appearing at a news conference alongside Clinton, Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov said the government was doing its best to strengthen civil society, human rights and the rule of law.
"Human rights cannot come within a night," he said. "It's a generational issue. It's a process."
Clinton also held talks with Azerbaijan's government about instability along the country's border with Armenia. Five Azeri soldiers were killed Tuesday in clashes, a day after Armenia said three of its troops were killed. The two former Soviet republics have been at odds since their independence two decades ago over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory, which lies within Azerbaijan, but was taken over by Armenia during a six-year war that killed about 30,000 people and displaced 1 million.
"I am deeply concerned about the danger of escalating tension, which could have unpredictable and disastrous consequences," Clinton said, urging both countries to maintain the cease-fire. "There is simply no justification for these incidents and the senseless cycle of violence and retaliation.
Clinton's visit was also part of an effort to promote American investment in Azerbaijan's booming oil and gas industries. She visited an industry trade show in the capital of Baku and expressed support for Azerbaijan's goal of establishing a southern corridor for natural gas exports to Europe, which could help the continent reduce its reliance on Russian fuel supplies.
The secretary of state travels later Wednesday to Turkey for meetings on counterterrorism strategy and Turkey. She returns to Washington on Thursday.