(New York) - The Azerbaijani government should immediately withdraw its libel case against the human rights activist Leyla Yunus, Human Rights Watch said today.

The lawsuit, brought by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, is scheduled to begin in a Baku court on January 23. It accuses her of "insulting" the ministry and causing "moral damage" to the reputation of the police in a news media interview about a kidnapping trial.

"A judgment against Yunus would set a terrible precedent for freedom of expression in Azerbaijan," said Rachel Denber, director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch. "The government should withdraw the case against her immediately."

During the past two years, the Azerbaijani government has undermined free expression in the country, jailing editors and journalists who criticize its record, intimidating human rights defenders, and closing newspapers and a human rights organization. In July 2007, the pro-government Modern Musavat party held a protest outside the Institute for Peace and Democracy, the human rights organization that Yunus directs, throwing eggs and tomatoes and shouting offensive remarks.

Yunus was monitoring the trial of several men accused of kidnapping two young sisters in 2005. One of the defendants confessed to the crime and said that the men had handed the girls over to a head officer in the local police department. At trial, the same defendant said that the police tortured him to try to compel him to withhold testimony about the alleged police involvement.

In the interview, published by the internet news provider website Day.Az in December 2008, Yunus called attention to the court's delay in summoning the accused officer to give evidence and the fact that the defendants' accusations of torture in custody were ignored. She made a brief comparison to police practices in Mexico and Nigeria, and mentioned a prior kidnapping case in which several Ministry of Internal Affairs officials, including the deputy minister, were found guilty and sentenced to long prison terms.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs' claim against Yunus alleges that, in making these statements, she "groundlessly" insulted the ministry during an ongoing investigation and that her comparison of the country's police force to those in Mexico and Nigeria was "not confirmed by official sources" and had caused moral damage to the Azerbaijani police's "professional reputation."

"When allegations are made of official involvement in kidnapping, the public has an interest in knowing what has been done to investigate," said Denber. "The Azerbaijani government should focus on ensuring that justice is done instead of targeting activists for their legitimate criticism."

Yunus' statements simply repeated what was said during court testimony by the defendant during an open trial. Azerbaijani law sets out no limits on how individuals may use information gleaned from open trials.

Yunus' reference to police practices of other countries was an expression of her opinion, based on the experiences related to her by a colleague. Information about another country's practices needs not to have come from "official sources" in order to be protected expression under human rights law.

Free expression is protected under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Azerbaijan is a party to both treaties.

The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly said that public officials are expected to be more tolerant of criticism than private citizens, especially when it concerns the exercise of their official duties. In addition, the claim of insult of the police as a class does not fit the usual definition of libel, which is primarily a wrong that damages the reputation of an individual.

"Yunus' comments are protected free speech under international human rights law," said Denber. "Comparing the police force in Azerbaijan to those in Mexico is legitimate opinion, not libel."