There was rare good news from Baku today – Azerbaijan’s supreme court partially reversed the conviction of a journalist, Aziz Orujov, and released him on a suspended three-year sentence.
Granted, he should have never been arrested or prosecuted in the first place. But unlike at least ten other journalists who languish in Azerbaijani jails, he is free and reunited with his family.
Orujov is director of Kanal 13, an online station that produces programs on social and economic issues and is often critical of authorities. Police arrested Orujov in May 2017, charged him with resisting authorities, and a court sentenced him to 30 days detention.
Hours before his detention expired, the authorities charged him with illegal entrepreneurship and abuse of authority, claiming that Kanal 13 received funding from abroad and failed to register it with the Ministry of Justice. Azerbaijan has a track record of using identical charges to imprison government critics, including journalists and leaders of nongovernmental organizations.
The case against Orujov was clearly intended to silence his critical reporting. In December 2017, a Grave Crimes Court convicted Orujov and sentenced him to six years in prison. Amnesty International recognized him as a prisoner of conscience.
Unexpectedly, yesterday the supreme court dismissed the illegal entrepreneurship charges and released him on a three-year suspended sentence.
At least ten other journalists and bloggers are imprisoned in Azerbaijan on politically motivated charges. They include journalist and blogger Mehman Huseynov, serving a two-year prison sentence on charges of defaming a police station after he publicly described abuse he endured there. There is also Seymur Hazi, a columnist with an opposition publication, serving a five-year sentence on trumped-up hooliganism charges. And there is Afgan Mukhtarli, who was sentenced in January to six years on bogus smuggling and other charges.
Next Wednesday, April 11, Azerbaijan is holding a snap presidential election, with the incumbent President Ilham Aliyev seeking his fourth term. The election results are pretty much a forgone conclusion, but unjustly imprisoned journalists and other government critics cast a shadow on the pre-election environment. Azerbaijan should release all those wrongfully imprisoned, and the country’s international partners should use this moment, when the government is seeking international approval, to insist on those releases.