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Jailing of Azeri Editor Sparks International Outcry

OSCE hits out at authorities after opposition editor handed jail sentence.
The jailing of an outspoken newspaper editor last week has provoked strong international criticism of the government’s record on freedom of speech.

Einulla Fatullayev, founder and senior editor of two leading newspapers in Azerbaijan, was sentenced to two and a half years in prison, after being found guilty of libel on April 20.

He was ruled to have insulted Azerbaijani refugees from the Karabakh town of Khojaly in an article published in April 2005 in Realny Azerbaijan, the weekly newspaper he founded.

No action was taken when the article first came out, but in January this year Fatullayev reiterated what he had said in an interview to an Azerbaijani online forum.

He was sued by the leader of the Centre for the Protection of Rights of Refugees and Displaced Persons Tatyana Chaladze, on behalf of the Khojaly residents. On April 6, a court ordered Fatullayev and his newspapers to pay a fine of 20,000 manats (23,000 US dollars).

Fatullayev was accused of having said in his article that Azerbaijan’s authorities and armed forces had deliberately failed to support the defenders of Khojaly at a crucial point in the siege of the town in February 1992.

He said his allegation was based on numerous interviews and videos given to him by Khojaly residents themselves. The prosecution demanded that Fatullayev produce the evidence, however he refused to do so, whereupon the court pronounced him guilty.

Chaladze then pursued the case further and demanded that Fatullayev be charged with libel under article 147 of the criminal code. On April 20, the court pronounced him guilty and the editor was given a jail sentence and taken into custody straight from the courtroom.

Fatullayev’s arrest outraged his colleagues. On April 24, around 60 journalists defied a ban to rally in the centre of Baku under the slogans “Freedom to Einulla Fatullayev!” and “Stop suppressing freedom of speech in Azerbaijan!” The police broke up the protest within 20 minutes, but no one was hurt.

A Committee for Protection of the Rights of Einulla Fatullayev has been set up, headed by Arzu Abdullayeva, a famous human rights activist and chairperson of the National Committee of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly.

One member of the committee Hikmet Hajizade, a well-known political analyst and former Azerbaijani ambassador in Moscow, said, “I still cannot believe what has happened. It’s a nightmare, I want to wake up from it but I can’t. I protest against this incident and call on all democratic forces in the country to protest against the arrest of Einulla Fatullayev.”

A recent visitor to Fatullayev in prison said he had no complaints about the conditions in which he was being held, but was angry about the trial and sentence and believed he was the victim of a political decision.

As if to confirm that the newspaper as a whole was under attack, on the same evening as Fatullayev was sentenced the deputy editor of the newspaper Uzeir Jafarov, was attacked by three unknown assailants. Jafarov was hospitalised with multiple injuries. He said that he believed he had been attacked because of the testimony he gave in court and that he recognised one of his attackers from the courtroom.

The theme of Khojaly - the worst massacre of the Karabakh war - is an extremely painful one in Azerbaijan and Fatullayev has been widely criticised in some quarters for his article and also for traveling to Nagorny Karabakh, which is under Armenian control.

Opposition journalist and veteran of the Karabakh war, Rei Kerimoglu, said the verdict passed on Fatullayev was too light. “Einulla should have been sentenced to at least ten years’ imprisonment and it would be even better, if he died in the prison,” he told IWPR.

But another deputy editor of the imprisoned man Chingiz Sultansoi said the authorities had cynically used the Khojaly refugees’ lawsuit as a pretext. “We openly criticised facts of corruption, human rights violations and problems in the army,” he said. “The authorities repeatedly tried to intimidate us. We even had to stop publishing our newspaper in November because of many threats we’d received.”

Sultansoi said the newspapers would be coming out despite the arrest. “We will keep on fulfilling our mission and delivering truthful information to Azerbaijani readers,” he said.

Fatullayev’s newspapers, Realny Azerbaijan and Gundelike Azerbaijan, are leading critics of the government. Realny Azerbaijan is frequently linked to a power struggle within the ruling elite, as it is frequently associated with Minister of Emergencies Kemaleddin Geidarov and the parliamentary deputy Husein Abdullayev who was recently arrested in controversial circumstances.

Opposition political analyst Zardusht Alizade said that the imprisonment of the editor was part of this ongoing feud. “Ahead of the presidential elections of 2008 and the forthcoming division of the huge oil revenues coming into the country, the ruling elite is trying to remove or subdue all possible rivals,” said Alizade.

By chance, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Representative on Freedom of the Media Miklos Haraszti was visiting Azerbaijan last week. He was sharply critical of the government’s record on freedom of speech, calling Azerbaijan “the champion in the number of cases against journalists”.

“Freedom of the press in Azerbaijan has been under an increasing pressure from the authorities,” said Haraszti. “Alongside Fatullayev, there are already five representatives of Azerbaijan’s press being held in custody. Unfortunately, all the cases are constructed on politically motivated accusations and were conducted in violation of the principles of freedom of speech.”

Haraszit said the OSCE would insist that Azerbaijan remove from its criminal code the articles making the expression of opinions a potential criminal offence and would recommend that the country adopt a law on defamation as soon as possible.

Government officials have mostly avoided commenting on the imprisonment of Fatullayev and the attack on his deputy. Ali Hasanov, a leading official in the presidential administration, said some prosecuted journalists had only themselves to blame. “We should try to ensure that journalists take into consideration rights of citizens and people are patient about what is published,” he said.

Hasanov said it was possible that all five detained journalists might be freed and this would happen within the law.

Azerbaijani human rights activists have declared Fatullayev a political prisoner and say they are ready to pursue his case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights. His lawyers are preparing an appeal.

Shahin Rzayev is IWPR’s Azerbaijan Country Director. Elshad Guliev is a freelance journalist working in Baku.