The conviction of Eynulla Fatullayev, the editor of Azerbaijan's largest independent newspaper, for “criminal libel” and “insult,” underscores deteriorating press freedoms in that country, Human Rights Watch said today.
On April 20, Yasamal District Court in Baku convicted Fatullayev, the outspoken editor-in-chief of the independent Realni Azerbaijan and Gundelik Azerbaijan newspapers, for having committed “criminal libel” and “insult.” The charges were based on an internet posting that the prosecution attributed to him, which blamed Azerbaijanis for a 1992 massacre in Nagorno-Karabakh. Fatullayev denied writing the posting, but was sentenced to 30 months in prison.
The same day, unknown assailants attacked one of Fatullayev’s colleagues at Realni Azerbaijan, Uzeyir Jafarov, who sustained serious injuries. Fatullayev is the fifth journalist to be imprisoned in Azerbaijan in the last 10 months.
“Fatullayev’s prosecution was politically motivated, and he should be immediately released from custody,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The steady rise of politically motivated defamation charges and violent attacks against critical journalists is clearly aimed at silencing critical voices in Azerbaijan.”
In its letter to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev on February 9, Human Rights Watch documented numerous cases of violence and criminal defamation charges against journalists in Azerbaijan, including Fatullayev. Human Rights Watch urged the president to take steps to end impunity for such violence, and ensure that Azerbaijan complies with its international obligations on freedom of expression and the press.
Fatullayev’s conviction comes just two weeks after the same court fined him 10,000 Azeri manats (about US$12,000) for the same offense in a civil claim brought by Tatiana Chaladze, head of the Azeri Center for Protection of Refugees and Displaced Persons. Chaladze also initiated the criminal libel and insult charges against Fatullayev.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has called for Azerbaijan to abolish the offense of criminal libel. Human Rights Watch echoed this call in February in its letter to President Aliev.
Fatullayev’s conviction was based on a statement attributed to him that was posted to the website Azeritricolor. The statement blamed Azerbaijanis for the 1992 massacre in the village of Khojali in Nagorno-Karabakh. Chaladze alleged that the statement defamed the village’s residents.
According to Azerbaijani official statistics, more than 600 people were killed on February 25, 1992, when ethnic Armenian forces stormed the predominantly Azeri town of Khojali. Fatullayev denies making the remark and maintains that it was a set-up intended to put him behind bars. The remark was apparently linked to an article Fatullayev had published in 2005, “Karabakh Diary,” in which he expressed the view that Armenian forces maintained a civilian corridor for Azeri villagers to flee Khojali.
Fatullayev wrote the 2005 article while working as an investigative journalist for the newspaper Monitor, where he worked until the murder of his close friend, Monitor editor Elmar Huseynov, in March 2005. Huseynov’s murder remains unsolved. Fatullayev’s Realni Azerbaijan newspaper is the successor to Monitor, which closed after Huseynov’s murder.
Fatullayev’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that, although his client’s conviction was partially based on statements made in the 2005 article about the Khojali massacre, the article itself was not included in the evidence against him. Fatullayev plans to appeal his conviction.
“As a member of the UN’s Human Rights Council, Azerbaijan should be exemplary in its protection of fundamental human rights like freedom of expression,” said Cartner. “Instead, the authorities have launched a series of politically motivated flawed trials against critical journalists, fueling an atmosphere of fear and hostility for the independent and opposition media.”
Just hours after Fatullayev’s conviction on April 20, unknown assailants brutally beat Fatullayev’s colleague, Realni Azerbaijan journalist Uzeyir Jafarov. Jafarov told Human Rights Watch that as he left the Realni Azerbaijan office around 11:45 p.m., 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 hospitalized for head trauma and remains in the hospital. He claimed to have seen one of the assailants in the court room at Fatullayev’s hearing earlier in the day.
“Attacks on journalists and the lack of accountability for these crimes are crushing freedom of the press and expression in Azerbaijan,” said Cartner. “If this crackdown on the media continues, it will be nearly impossible for Azerbaijan to hold free and fair presidential elections next year.”
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, 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.
Soon after the statement attributed to Fatullayev about the Khojali massacre began to circulate on the internet in February, 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, 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.