MOSCOW Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pressed Azerbaijan on Wednesday to show greater respect for human rights during a brief trip to the oil- and gas-exporting Caspian Sea nation.
In a roughly five-hour visit, Clinton balanced her concerns about Azerbaijan's rights record with U.S. interest in its energy resources, making time to meet with activists for a more open government as well as to tour an annual energy trade show.
"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," Clinton said after meeting Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.
Critics accuse Aliyev, who in 2003 succeeded his father to the presidency of the Caspian Sea country north of Iran, of clamping down on dissent. But Baku says the country enjoys full freedom of speech and a vibrant opposition press.
Democracy advocates sought to use the run up to the May 26 Eurovision song contest to organize protests against political conditions in the former Soviet republic.
The authorities responded by arresting dozens of peaceful protesters in central Baku during rallies and marches demanding democracy and the resignation of the government.
In its annual human rights report released last month, the U.S. State Department said Azerbaijan's most significant human rights problem last year was the restriction of freedoms of expression, assembly, and association.
Other problems cited by the report included reports of executive influence over the judiciary, politically motivated imprisonments and reports of torture and abuse in police or military custody that resulted in at least nine deaths.
(Reporting By Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Mark Heinrich)