U.N. torture inspectors say barred from Azerbaijan jails

GENEVA (Reuters) - A United Nations human rights team looking into complaints of torture in Azerbaijan said on Wednesday it had cut short its investigations because it had been stopped from visiting some government detention centres. In a statement issued in Geneva, the five-person group said the action by the authorities in the former Soviet republic had come despite assurances that the team would have unrestricted access to all places where prisoners were held. The team, all independent experts from the U.N.'s Sub-Committee on Prevention of Torture, said they had also been barred from completing work at some sites to which they had been initially admitted. They had therefore concluded that the integrity of their visit, due to have run from September 8 to 17 "had been compromised to such an extent that it had to be suspended." They cut short their program last Sunday. Azerbaijan, whose president since 2003 Ilham Aliyev is the son of the energy rich country's long-time strongman under Soviet rule, is accused by human rights campaigners of persecuting opponents and suppressing dissent. Its leaders are courted by Western countries and their energy firms as an alternative to Russia in supplying oil and gas from the Caspian Sea to Europe. The Azerbaijani government denies it violates human rights accords. In August, Amnesty International said rights activists seized in a new wave of arrests had fallen victim to tough new laws strictly limiting the operations of civil society groups campaigning for freedom of expression. The statement from the U.N. torture team, headed by Maldivian jurist Aisha Shujune Mohammad, gave no details of the prisoners or the jails it had hoped to visit. Officials in Geneva said they preferred to keep their work confidential. But the statement said the limits placed on their investigations amounted to a serious breach of the country's obligations under a 2002 U.N. agreement allowing for unhindered visits by expert teams from the sub-committee. (Reported by Robert Evans; editing by Ralph Boulton)