Human Rights Watch welcomes the recent release of five journalists, imprisoned for defamation and other criminal charges, who were included in the presidential decree pardoning 119 inmates. This step is in line with Azerbaijan’s Council of Europe obligations. Further steps should be taken to fully ensure press freedoms in Azerbaijan, including the release of the remaining four journalists and writers imprisoned for what appear to be politically motivated criminal charges, and the declaration of a moratorium on further prosecutions for criminal libel.
Faramaz Allahverdiev, Samir Sadetoglu, Rafik Tagi, Rovshan Kebirly and Yashar Agazadeh were released on December 28, 2007 under your pardon decree; they had been convicted, variously, on charges of libel, insult, defamation, and inciting religious hatred. Still in prison are Eynulla Fatullayev, founder and editor-in-chief of two newspapers – Realny Azerbaijan and Gundelik Azerbaijan – who is serving an eight-and-a-half year sentence for fomenting terrorism and other dubious criminal charges (both papers were forced to close); Mirza Sakit, a reporter and satirist for the daily Azadlyg, who is serving a prison sentence on equally dubious charges of narcotics possession; Ganimed Zahid, editor-in-chief of Azadlig who has been in pretrial custody since November 2007 for spurious hooliganism charges; and Mushfig Husseinov, a Bizim Yol newspaper journalist who is in pretrial custody awaiting trial on questionable extortion charges, which local NGOs believe were the result of entrapment.
Of particular concern is the October 2007 conviction of Eynulla Fatullayev on charges of terrorism and inciting religious and ethnic hatred. The terrorism charges derived from an article Fatullayev had written arguing that the government’s Iran policy might make Azerbaijan vulnerable to attack from Iran and speculating what several targets for attack might be. Such expression is legitimate political commentary; speech that is protected under article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Similar articles routinely appear in the U.S. and British press, saying that the pursuit of the war in Iraq is increasing the likelihood of terrorist attacks on Britain or the United States.
Releasing Fatullayev and other imprisoned journalists would be seen as an important manifestation of Azerbaijan’s commitment to fully implement its human rights obligations and would create a supportive climate for the media in the run-up to the autumn presidential elections.
At least half of the journalists imprisoned in Azerbaijan in the past two years were convicted on charges of criminal libel or defamation. Aside from Russia, Azerbaijan is the only Council of Europe member state that currently imprisons journalists using criminal libel laws; almost all others refrain from doing so because it contravenes the right to freedom of the press and freedom of expression guaranteed under the European Convention on Human Rights. Some Council of Europe states retain criminal libel laws but when invoked do not impose prison sentences as sanctions because of the requirements of the European Convention; in other European states criminal libel laws exist on the books, but are not used, for the same reason.
Your government must do more than release journalists to show its commitment to freedom of expression. The only way to ensure that the authorities are not abusing the criminal libel laws to stifle unwelcome dissent is to repeal the criminal libel law or as a minimum announce a moratorium on further use of it. Civil remedies with a reasonable monetary cap, not criminal prosecutions, should be available in cases of libel.
As Azerbaijan goes into a year of presidential elections, ensuring vibrant public discourse based on freedom of expression and a diversity of views, provided through diverse sources of information, is crucial for a free and fair vote.
Thank you very much for taking into consideration our concerns. I look forward to Human Rights Watch’s continued engagement with you and your government.
Europe and Central Asia Division