(New York) - The November 18, 2010 release of the blogger Adnan Hajizade was a positive step, but the Azerbaijani government should also immediately free the imprisoned journalist Eynulla Fatullayev and another blogger, Emin Milli, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should also decriminalize libel and take other steps to uphold freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said.
The Baku Court of Appeals released Hajizade, a 27-year-old youth activist and blogger, on probation. Hajizade has served over half of a two-year sentence on hooliganism charges. Many who have followed the case believe that the charges were fabricated in retaliation for his criticism of the government and to silence him.
"We're thrilled that Hajizade is now free, but he never should have been imprisoned in the first place," said Giorgi Gogia, South Caucasus researcher at Human Rights Watch. "If the government is serious about living up to its human rights commitments, it should immediately free Emin Milli and Eynulla Fatullayev, vacate the convictions against all three of these journalists, and compensate them."
Hajizade and Milli were well-known for criticizing Azerbaijani government policies in blog postings and social networking sites and were arrested in July 2009 a week after distributing a satirical YouTube video criticizing the authorities. The arrests followed an apparently staged scuffle in a Baku restaurant. They were attacked by two assailants but then arrested as they tried to file an assault complaint at a local police station.
Hajizade and Milli were convicted of hooliganism - Hajizade was sentenced to two years in prison and Milli to two-and-a-half years.
Fatullayev, a prominent journalist and founder of two popular newspapers, remains in detention despite a European Court of Human Rights judgment in April ordering the government to free him immediately. Fatullayev has been serving an eight-and-a-half year sentence since April 2007 for terrorism and inciting ethnic hatred as well as for civil and criminal defamation convictions based on his writings. On November 11, the government cleared him of these charges, but orchestrated Fatullayev's continued detention pending an appeal on drug possession charges brought while he was in prison, which many observers consider to have been fabricated.
These high-profile cases are part of a series of attacks on freedom of expression in Azerbaijan. In October, Human Rights Watch released the report "Beaten, Blacklisted, and Behind Bars: The Vanishing Space for Freedom of Expression in Azerbaijan," documenting the government's efforts to limit freedom of expression in Azerbaijan.
"The government has a lot more to do to meet its commitments to freedom of expression," Gogia said. "In addition to freeing these journalists, it should decriminalize libel and stop using other criminal charges to stifle dissent."