(Tbilisi) - Authorities in Azerbaijan on May 26, 2011, released Eynulla Fatullayev, a prominent journalist and outspoken government critic who had been in prison since 2007 on politically motivated charges, Human Rights Watch said today. Fatullayev was freed pursuant to a presidential pardon, but his conviction was not overturned or vacated.
"We are overjoyed that Fatullayev is finally free and at home with his family," said Giorgi Gogia, South Caucasus researcher at Human Rights Watch. "But it is outrageous that he should have been imprisoned in the first place. Authorities should immediately vacate the convictions against Fatullayev and compensate him."
Fatullayev, a journalist and founder of two popular newspapers, had been serving an eight-and-a-half year sentence since April 2007 on politically-motivated and unsubstantiated charges of criminal defamation, threatening terrorism, inciting ethnic hatred, and tax evasion.
In April 2010 the European Court of Human Rights found that Azerbaijan had violated Fatullayev's right to freedom of expression in a grossly disproportionate manner by imprisoning him, and, in an exceptional move, called for his immediate release.
On November 11, 2010, the Supreme Court reviewed Fatullayev's case, clearing him of some of the convictions, but authorities orchestrated his continued detention by filing charges of drug possession against him while he was in prison. The drug-related charges were added after Fatullayev had pleaded his case before the European Court of Human Rights, in the weeks leading up to its judgment.
Human Rights Watch said Fatullayev's case was part of a broader government campaign to restrict freedom of expression in Azerbaijan. An October 2010 report by Human Rights Watch details how the government uses criminal laws, violent attacks, threats, and other forms of harassment to silence dissenting journalists.
In recent weeks courts have convicted two social media activists, Jabbar Savalanli and Bakhtiar Hajiyev for drug possession and draft evasion in what were clearly politically motivated prosecutions. Both youth activists had used Facebook and other social media to voice criticism of the authorities and call for public protests.
"Freedom of expression, particularly if it challenges the government, is still under serious assault in Azerbaijan," Gogia said. "Authorities should urgently repeal criminal libel laws and end the misuse of other criminal charges to silence dissent."
The government should also prosecute violence or threats against reporters, which routinely go unpunished, Human Rights Watch said.
Fatullayev founded and was the editor-in-chief of two of the largest and most popular newspapers in the country - Gundelik Azerbaijan, or Azerbaijan Daily, and Realny Azerbaijan, or Real Azerbaijan. The original civil and criminal charges against him stem from a 2005 newspaper article and internet posting about the 1992 Khojali massacre, which took place during the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The article questioned the version of the Khojali events most commonly accepted in Azerbaijan.
In 2007 a court convicted Fatullayev on new charges of threatening terrorism and inciting ethnic hatred in relation to another article he had written, and also of tax evasion, and sentenced him to eight years and six months.
Even before the 2007 case, Fatullayev had faced threats, attacks, and prosecution, apparently in retaliation for his writing. In July 2004, he was severely beaten, in what appears to have been retaliation for an article criticizing the government. In August 2006, the interior minister, Rasul Usubov, brought three defamation claims against Fatullayev, and one month later a court convicted him, handing him a two-year suspended sentence and a fine of more than US$10,000.
In October 2006, Fatullayev was forced to suspend publication of both newspapers briefly, after his father was kidnapped. The kidnappers threatened to kill him and his father if Fatullayev continued to publish. The kidnappers were never apprehended.