There is growing alarm at the prosecutions and violent harassment of members of the media in Azerbaijan. According to PEN, there are now five journalists serving prison terms on charges of defamation, terrorism and ‘inciting religious enmity’. Although violations of freedom of expression are nothing new in the South Caucasus state, attacks and imprisonment of journalists have risen sharply in the last year.
Even the British government is concerned by Azerbaijan’s stringent media controls and the deteriorating environment for independent journalists. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office reported the murder of Elmar Huseynov, a prominent journalist, who was shot dead outside his apartment in March 2005, observing that the Azerbaijan government declared the killing a ‘terrorist act’ but, despite international condemnation, have made little progress in bringing the perpetrators to justice. Huseynov, founder and editor of the independent weekly news magazine Monitor, had been under constant pressure from the authorities for the critical nature of some of its articles, and had experienced difficulties with printing and distribution as well as facing several defamation lawsuits.
A more recent case of concern is that of a former colleague of Huseynov, Eynulla Fatullayev, who in April this year was sentenced under Article 147.2 of the Criminal Code to two and a half years in prison on charges of libel. The outspoken editor-in-chief of the independent Realni Azerbaijan and Gundelik Azerbaijan newspapers was convicted for a statement attributed to him that was published on the website AzeriTriColor. The Internet posting accuses the Azeri army of culpability in the deaths of Azeri citizens during an Armenian army siege of a city in Nagorno Karabakh in 1992. Fatullayev says he did not post the article and maintains that it was a set-up aimed at landing him in prison. He has been targeted before for his writing. Fatullayev was reportedly a close friend of Huseynov, and Realni Azerbaijan newspaper is the successor to Monitor, which closed after Huseynov’s death. After publishing an article accusing the Azeri authorities of obstructing the investigation into the murder of the editor, Fatullayev reported death threats against him and his family. The Azeri authorities refused to investigate these claims or to offer protection to Fatullayev.
On 20 April 2007 Yasamal District Court in Baku convicted Fatullayev of ‘criminal libel’ and ‘insult’, sentencing him to thirty months in prison. The same day, unknown assailants attacked one of Fatullayev’s colleagues at Realni Azerbaijan, who sustained serious injuries. Uzeyir Jafarov told Human Rights Watch (HRW) that as he left the office, around 11.45pm, two people attacked him from behind and hit him several times on the head. The assailants fled only after Jafarov’s colleagues responded to his calls for help. Jafarov was later hospitalised for head trauma. He claimed to have seen one of the assailants in the courtroom at Fatullayev’s hearing earlier in the day.
On 22 May 2007 Fatullayev was served with additional charges of ‘terrorism’ under Article 214 of the Criminal Code, for which he faces a further twelve years in prison. He is accused by the Ministry for National Security of aiding the Armenian Special Forces, although no specific details were given. On 20 May, his newspaper’s offices had been searched by National Security agents and computers and documents were seized.
According to HRW, Fatullayev is known for his frequent criticism of Azeri officials and for exposing instances of government corruption. For over a year he has been under increasing pressure to stop practising his profession. High-ranking state officials have initiated criminal defamation charges against Fatullayev. In September 2006 Fatullayev was handed a two-year suspended sentence and forced to pay damages in a criminal libel case brought by Interior Minister Ramil Usubov. (Usubov has apparently brought similar charges against numerous other independent journalists and newspapers.) On 1 October 2006 Fatullayev’s father was kidnapped. The kidnappers threatened to kill both Fatullayev and his father, and he was forced to suspend the publication of his newspapers in exchange for his father’s release. Fatullayev resumed publishing only two months later, but at risk to his own life, since the kidnappers remained at large.
The latest reports suggest that the journalist is being held in inhumane conditions and that he has received multiple death threats whilst in prison. Readers may like to send appeals calling for the release of Eynulla Fatullayev and protesting against the additional sentence levied against him which is considered to be in violation of international standards guaranteeing the right to freedom of expression:
President Ilham Aliyev
Office of the President of the Azerbaijan Republic
19 Istiqlaliyyat Street
Baku AZ1066 Azerbaijan
Fax: 00 994 12 492 0625