NEW YORK, Sept 24 (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama urged the leader of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, on Friday to free two jailed Azeri bloggers and increase protections for human rights.
The case is at the heart of the West’s delicate balancing act with the former Soviet republic, an energy supplier to Europe and a transit country for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but where democratic freedoms are shrinking under Aliyev.
Adnan Hajizade, a video blogger and member of the opposition OL! movement, and activist and blogger Emin Milli, were jailed in November 2009 for 24 and 30 months after an alleged brawl in a cafe.
Rights groups say the charges were fabricated and their trial flawed.
A White House statement said Obama “expressed his hope that Azerbaijan as a young democracy would implement democratic reforms and increase protections for human rights, including by releasing two jailed bloggers.”
“The president noted that strong institutions contribute to fostering economic growth and stability in Azerbaijan and both leaders expressed a desire to develop closer ties between our two countries,” the statement said.
The families of the two bloggers had issued an open letter to Obama asking him to raise the case during his talks with Aliyev on the margins of the U.N. General Assembly.
Obama and Aliyev posed for pictures briefly as their meeting began but said nothing to reporters.
The White House statement said Obama expressed his appreciation for Azerbaijan’s contributions to supporting the U.S.-led military mission in Afghanistan.
Strategically located between Russia, Turkey and Iran, Azerbaijan is a key transit route for U.S. troops and supplies going to Afghanistan. (Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Doina Chiacu)