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Reporter Without Borders
Azerbaijan October 13, 2006
Office of the President
19 Istiqaliyyat Street
Republic of Azerbaijan
Fax: (011.994.12) 98-33-28/ 92-28-68
We write on behalf of the Overseas Press Club of America (OPC), a New York-based association of international journalists founded in 1939, to express concern over the recent conviction on questionable drug charges against Sakit Zakhidov, a prominent journalist, poet and government critic, and other disturbing signs of a trend toward repression of the news media in your country.
OPC joins an international chorus of leading journalists, editors, media executives and organizations devoted to press freedom in condemning the growing number of arrests, lawsuits and violent attacks targeting members of the media in Azerbaijan, and the lack of fair, open and serious police investigation and legal prosecution of these cases.
Most immediately, we condemn the three-year prison sentence for Zahkhidov, who writes for the opposition daily, Azadlyg, on what local press freedom activists call trumped up drug charges, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. On September 26, the prosecution told the court it could not prove intent to sell, so shifted to the lesser charge of drug use. However, several physicians who police said had found drugs in Zakhidov’s system, later testified in court that they had never tested him for drugs, according to the press freedom group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
Although Zakhidov has called off the hunger strike he began in July, his state of health has deteriorated sharply, according to RSF. And Emin Huseynov, a former correspondent for the Turan news agency, reports that Zakhidov has not received adequate treatment in prison for a longstanding heart condition. OPC supports the efforts of Huseynov’s Committee to Defend the Rights of Sakit Zakhidov, which has called for Zakhidov’s release on medical grounds.
The OPC also reiterates concerns expressed in the following CPJ account of cases:
Shakhin Agabeili: On August 10, Judge Gyulzar Tagizade of the Nasimi District Court in Baku convicted Shakhin Agabeili, editor-in-chief of the independent weekly, Milli Yol, of defaming Parliament vice speaker, Arif Ragimzade, in a 2005 article, which accused Ragimzade of accepting bribes. Agabeili was sentenced to one year in prison.
In a separate case, Interior Minister Usubov filed a defamation suit against Agabeili, stemming from an article titled, “Shameless Man,” published in Milli Yol’s July 24-30 issue. Usubov alleged the article wrongfully accused him of ties with Haji Mammadov, a former Interior Ministry official on trial for murder and kidnapping. Usubov withdrew his complaint after Agabeili’s conviction in the above-mentioned case and after Agabeili apologized to him following a week-long imprisonment and interrogation that, his colleagues suspect, led to the apology.
Agabeili is currently being held in the Bailovsk prison in Baku and he is prevented from receiving visitors. Journalists in Azerbaijan called his prison sentence “harsh” and “inappropriate,” and attributed it to the government’s long-standing intolerance of Agabeili’s critical reporting. In October, 2003, then member of Parliament, Fazail Agamaly of the pro-government Ana Vaten party, publicly threatened “to squash Shakhin Agabeili and other cockroaches like him.”
Eynulla Fatullayev: In early August, Minister Usubov filed three criminal defamation suits against the independent weekly newspaper, Realny Azerbaijan, and its editor-in-chief, Eynulla Fatullayev, in response to articles titled “The revenge of the antibiotic,” “The failure of the antibiotic,” and “The antibiotic and journalists,” published in July and August, which also alleged ties between Usubov and Mammadov. On September 26, Judge Malakhat Abdulmanafova of the Yasamal District Court in Baku convicted Fatullayev of criminal libel and insult and sentenced him to a conditional two-year prison term, ordered him to publish a retraction, and pay a fine of 10,000 manats (US$11,300) in moral damages to Usubov. In addition, the newspaper was fined 5,000 manats (US$5,600) in damages. Fatullayev plans to appeal the decision. Defense lawyer Isakhan Ashurov said the ruling was wrong. “The court’s decision was unjust, illegal and groundless and was passed with gross violations of Azerbaijani and European laws.” The Associated Press quoted Ashurov as saying. “Fatullayev’s guilt was not proven.”
With over 30,000 readers, Realny Azerbaijan is one of the country’s most popular newspapers. Local journalists suspect that these charges are in retaliation for the paper’s heavy criticism of the government, especially of the Interior Ministry, according to CPJ sources. In response to the official campaign against the paper, Fatullayev announced the closure of Realny Azerbaijan , the local press reported.
Fikret Faramazoglu: In August, Minister Usubov filed criminal defamation charges against the Baku-based weekly opposition newspaper, 24 Saat, and its editor-in-chief, Fikret Faramazoglu, in response to articles titled “Ramil Usubov’s Lawsuit” and “The Minister Needs 10,000 Manat” published on July 26 and 27, respectively. Faramazoglu was charged with libel and insult. On August 26, Judge Famil Nasibov of the Nasimi District Court found Faramazoglu guilty on both charges and sentenced him to a suspended one-year prison term. The paper and Faramazoglu were also fined 500 manats (US$600) each.
In September, Member of Parliament Dzhavid Gurbanov also filed defamation charges against Faramazoglu, alleging the newspaper published articles at the end of August, which questioned his ethnicity and relations with controversial former Health Minister Ali Insanov, who was arrested in October 2005 and accused of plotting a coup. Azerbaijan ‘s criminal code stipulates that if found guilty of a second set of criminal libel charges, Faramazoglu would have to serve prison time. The maximum penalty for Article 147, under which Faramazoglu is being charged, is up to three years in prison.
In March, Samir Adygozalov, editor-in-chief of Boyuk Millat, was convicted on charges of criminal libel and insult and sentenced to a year in prison for an article that accused the rector of Baku State University with improper use of school funds for Armenian causes.
Also in March, three unidentified men abducted Fikret Huseinli, a reporter for the opposition newspaper, Azadlyg, after he wrote articles that detailed alleged bribe-taking among senior government officials and criminal activities involving wealthy business people, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).
In May, five unidentified men abducted and severely beat Bakhaddin Khaziyev, editor-in-chief of the Baku-based opposition newspaper, Bizim Yol, and he was hospitalized in serious condition with multiple fractures and bruises, according to local and international press reports. The Turan news agency said that Khaziyev, also deputy chairman of the opposition People’s Front of Azerbaijan, links the attack to his recent articles criticizing high officials in the Ministry of National Security (MNB).
In July, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) complained that Internet users in Azerbaijan were unable to access Tinsohbeti.com, a foreign-based satirical blog with cartoons making fun of President Ilham Aliev and his government, and articles openly critical of government policies. “We strongly suspect the Azeri authorities of blocking the Tinsohbeti site,” RSF concluded.
Also in July, Haji Mammadov, the above-mentioned Interior Ministry officer facing trial on charges of murder and kidnapping, said in court that he took part in the unrelated murder last year of Elmar Huseyonov, founder and editor of the opposition weekly, Monitor , on the orders of Farkhad Aliyev, a former minister of economics, already in prison and awaiting trial on charges of organizing a coup against the national government. But Aliyev, in a statement, denied involvement in the killing, and the murdered man’s father, Sabirt Huseynov, said he doubted Aliyev and Mammadov were involved. “It’s too convenient. Both of them are already in prison…The authorities must find the real killers,” Aliyev said. In August, at a meeting of the Elmar Huseyonov Foundation, Azerbaijani journalists urged local police to work closely with the American FBI to solve the case
All these and similar cases only serve to denigrate and intimidate the free press that is a hallmark and requirement of democracy around the world today. We urge Your Excellency to set your country on a new course with the following actions:
• Work with legal authorities to scrap the archaic libel stipulations of Azerbaijan ‘s criminal code.
• Publicly condemn attacks on freedom of the press, and insist on full and fair official investigations, so the citizens of Azerbaijan will feel your commitment to an open society.
• Do everything in your power to ensure that authorities, including Interior Minister Ramil Usubov, stop unjustified and politically motivated prosecutions.
• Create an atmosphere of trust in Azerbaijan through your personal affirmation and support of press freedom. This includes allowing journalists to practice their trade without fear of retribution from the state.
We look forward to your response, and thank you for your consideration.
David M. Alpern
Freedom of the Press Committee
Hafiz Mir Jalal Pashayev
Office of the Prime Minister
63 Lermontov kuc.
Republic of Azerbaijan
Fax: (011.994.12) 98-97-86
Artur Tahir oglu Rasizadeh
Ambassador of Azerbaijan to the U.S.A.
Embassy of the Azerbaijani Republic
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Washington , DC 20038
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Ambassador Yashar Aliyev
Permanent Mission of the Azerbaijani Republic
to the United Nations
866 United Nations Plaza, Suite 560
New York , NY 10017
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Rashad Majid Editor-in-Chief
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Anne Elizabeth Derse
U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan
Embassy of the United States of America
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(OR: U.S. Embassy – Azerbaijan
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Washington , DC 20521 )
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