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WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has been banned from entering Azerbaijan, a formerly Soviet country in the South Caucasus region, adjacent to Russia, Iran and Armenia.
Gabbard went to the conflict-ridden region last week on what was billed as a fact-finding trip with a congressional delegation. The group visited a number of sites in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-majority enclave that has broken away and now calls itself the Republic of Artsakh.
Azerbaijani officials contend that Armenian forces illegally seized the Nagorno-Karabakh area during a war that ended in 1994.
Azerbaijani officials called the congressional delegation’s visit to these areas a “provocation,” according to regional press reports.
Gabbard, along with colleagues Rep. Frank Pallone, a Democrat from New Jersey, and Rep. David Valadao, a Republican from California, had been added to “a list of undesirable people.”
“Pallone, Valadao, and Gabbard paid an illegal visit to the occupied Azerbaijani territories, thus breaching Azerbaijani law,” said the country’s foreign minister, Hikmet Hajiyev, in an article published by Interfax, an online news site that provides information on Eurasia.
Armenians, however, welcomed the visit.
Armenians are majority Christians and Azerbaijanis are majority Muslims. They have been sparring for a century over who has done the most damage and inflicted the most violence on the other.
On Wednesday, responding to questions from Honolulu Civil Beat, Gabbard’s office issued a press release that described the trip she had taken. The release said the trip occurred “last week.”
The trip, approved by the U.S. State Department under the Mutual Education and Cultural Exchange Act, was funded by the Republic of Armenia, according to Emily Latimer, a spokeswoman for Gabbard.
The press release did not address the ban by Azerbaijan, and Latimer offered no further comment.
Attached to the press release were pictures of Gabbard meeting with the speaker of the National Assembly of Armenia, the president of Armenia and Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
Members of the congressional delegation, which included Rep. Jackie Speier and Rep. Anna Eshoo, both Democrats from Northern California, also visited a vocational school in Shushi that is supported by donations from Armenians living in other countries.
Gabbard, who is expected to run for re-election in the House has shown increasing interest in issues involving world trouble spots.
She serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and subcommittees covering Asia and the Pacific and the Middle East and North Africa. She also serves on the House Armed Services Committee and its Emerging Threats subcommittee.
Many believe she might be a contender for national office, in part because of her international credentials.
In January, The Washington Post called her one of 11 women who could credibly seek the Democratic presidential nomination. In May, The Hill, a political news site in Washington, named her to a list of 43 people who could challenge President Donald Trump in 2020.
Gabbard generated controversy for her participation in a fact-finding mission to war-torn Syria in January that included a meeting with Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad, in what she described as an attempted peace negotiation.
Critics called her visit ill conceived.
The trip to Armenia comes amid a continued public campaign in Washington led by the Armenian National Committee of America to gain recognition of what it considers the “Armenian Genocide.”
The committee wants to force Turkey and Azerbaijan to acknowledge mass killings of about 1.5 million people and huge population displacement that occurred among Armenian Christians in the early 20th century when they were ruled by the Ottoman Empire.
The Turkish government denies that genocide occurred.
In a statement, Gabbard said she “traveled to Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh with a bipartisan group of congressional colleagues to hear and see firsthand the challenges and opportunities that exist within Armenia and the region, and identify areas of mutual interest and cooperation that will strengthen the security, economic, and cultural relationships that bind our two countries.
“Focusing on the priorities of a peaceful, sustainable, and secure region remains the key to deepening the American-Armenian relationship.”
The experience underscored her impression that the “people of the Nagorno-Karabakh region who remain in an ongoing conflict over their independence” deserve self-determination, she said.
“We must support a diplomatic resolution to this ongoing conflict, such as what has been proposed by the Minsk Group (made up of the United States, France and Russia), to allow for the people of Nagorno-Karabakh to exercise their freedom and independence,” she said in the statement.
She also repeated her call for global recognition and condemnation of the 100-year-old series of events, calling it “unconscionable that the United States government still has not formally recognized and condemned the Armenian genocide.”
In the statement, she urged passage of House Resolution 220, which calls for the U.S. government to recognize genocide against religious and ethnic groups in the Middle East, including events that occurred under the Ottoman Empire. Gabbard and U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa are both co-sponsors of the statement.
In the press release, Gabbard noted that the Hawaii Legislature had taken a stand in March 2016 in support of the Nagorno-Karakbakh republic by urging international recognition of the country in light of the “wars, massacres, economic deprivation and other tremendous hardships” experienced by its people.
The debate over Armenia has a tortured history in Hawaii, too.
In 2014, Civil Beat reported that Hawaii state Reps. Rida Cabanilla and Mark Takai had authored a resolution commemorating the anniversary of a slaughter of 600 people by Armenian and Russian military forces in the town of Khojaly in Azerbaijan. They also urged the U.S. to help resolve the fight over the disputed territory.
Civil Beat also reported that Cabanilla and Takai, who later became a congressman and Gabbard’s colleague, had authored the resolution after taking an $8,000 trip to Azerbaijan at that nation’s expense.
The resolution was subsequently dropped, after Armenian-Americans in Hawaii sharply criticized it.
Instead, the Legislature came down on the other side of the dispute two years later.
On Sept. 20 at the United Nations, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev denounced what he called Armenian atrocities against Azerbaijanis.
His speech attracted attention not just because of what he said, but also because his adult daughter took pictures of herself on her cell phone listening to the speech and making funny faces.