Unrelenting Crackdown on Media in Azerbaijan Intensifies
The eight-and-a-half-year prison sentence handed down to Eynulla Fatullayev, editor of Azerbaijan’s two largest independent newspapers, for terrorism and other charges, reflects the growing government hostility toward freedom of expression and the press, Human Rights Watch said today.
On October 30, Azerbaijan’s Grave Crimes Court convicted Fatullayev, the outspoken editor-in-chief of the independent Realni Azerbaijan and Gundelik Azerbaijan newspapers, for terrorism, inciting ethnic hatred, and tax evasion. The conviction is a culmination of a concerted effort by the Azerbaijani authorities to silence Fatuallyev and his newspapers.
“Fatullayev’s prosecution was politically motivated, and his conviction should be quashed immediately and he should be released,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The steady rise of politically motivated criminal charges, as well as violent attacks against journalists, is obviously aimed at silencing critical voices in Azerbaijan.”
The terrorism and inciting ethnic hatred charges derive from an article Fatullayev wrote in Realni Azerbaijan, in which he argued that the government’s support of the United States’ position on Iran makes Azerbaijan vulnerable to attack from Iran, and he speculated on likely targets of such an attack.
“Fatullayev’s conviction on terrorism charges is absurd,” said Cartner. “Similar articles routinely appear in US and British papers, saying that the pursuit of the war in Iraq is increasing the likelihood of terrorist attacks on Britain or the United States. That is legitimate political commentary, not the fomenting of terrorism.”
Fatullayev’s conviction comes six months after the Yasamal District Court in Baku sentenced him to two-and-a-half years for having committed “criminal libel” and “insult” with an internet posting, which he denied writing. Shortly after this conviction Realni Azerbaijan and Gundelik Azerbaijan, the two largest circulation print outlets in the country, were effectively shut down after Emergency Ministry and National Security Ministry personnel evicted the staff from the papers’ premises, confiscated their computer hard drives, and sealed the office shut. Such actions flout Azerbaijan’s obligations as a party to the European Convention on Human Rights, and its commitments to respect fundamental freedoms and the rule of law.
Fatullayev is the eighth journalist in Azerbaijan imprisoned for defamation and other criminal charges. Human Rights Watch has also documented numerous cases of violence and threats of violence against opposition and independent journalists in the country.
Eynulla Fatullayev is known for his frequent criticism of Azeri officials and for exposing instances of government corruption. Pressure on Fatullayev to stop his journalism had been building for over a year. Fatullayev was forced to suspend publication of his newspapers on October 1, after his father was kidnapped. The kidnappers threatened to kill both Fatullayev and his father if he continued publishing the newspapers. The editor had to stop publication of the paper in exchange for his father’s release. Fatullayev renewed publishing only two months later, but acknowledged that he did so at his own peril, since the kidnappers remained at large.
In March 2007, after publishing an article accusing the Azeri authorities of obstructing the investigation into the murder of Monitor editor Elmar Huseinov, Fatullayev reported death threats against him and his family. The Azeri authorities refused to investigate these claims or offer to protect Fatullayev.
In February, soon after a statement attributed to Fatullayev about the Khojali massacre began to circulate on the internet, protestors organized several rallies in front of the Realni Azerbaijan office and threw eggs and stones at the office windows. Police did nothing to stop the protestors.
In recent months, 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 brought similar charges against numerous other independent journalists and newspapers.
The conviction of Fatullayev comes amid the Azerbaijani government’s growing hostility toward independent and opposition media, which raises serious concerns about the future of independent media and the security of journalists in the country. Violence and the threat of violence against journalists have become frequent in Azerbaijan, and often such crimes are committed with impunity. A dramatic increase in defamation charges brought against journalists by state officials has further contributed to the deteriorating environment for freedom of expression.