New York, November 1, 2011--The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by the prosecution and imprisonment of Avaz Zeynally, editor-in-chief of the independent daily Khural, and calls on Azerbaijani authorities to release him immediately.
Authorities in Baku arrested Zeynally on Friday on bribery and extortion charges stemming from a complaint filed by Gyuler Akhmedova, a member of parliament. Akhmedova alleged that the editor had tried to extort 10,000 manat (US$12,700) from her in an August encounter, regional and international press reports said.
On Saturday, the Nasimi District Court ordered that Zeynally be held in pretrial detention for three months, the independent Caucasus news website Kavkazsky Uzel reported. If convicted, he faces up to 12 years in jail.
Zeynally denies all charges and describes a much different encounter with the member of parliament, Kavkazsky Uzel reported. In September, Zeynally reported in Khural that Akhmedova had offered him money in exchange for his paper's loyalty to authorities. He reported that he had refused the offer. Akhmedova left Azerbaijan on October 19, although the reason for her trip was not immediately clear, regional press reports said.
Emin Huseynov, director of the Baku-based Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety, told CPJ that Zeynally's paper had criticized President Ilham Aliyev's repressive policies toward independent journalists and opposition activists. Zeynally had published two recent commentaries in Khural that were especially critical of the administration. In the first, he disparaged comments made by Aliyev in an Al-Jazeera interview that painted a glowing picture of the country's development. In the second, Zeynally accused the government of retaliatory prosecution against Khural, Huseynov told CPJ.
In mid-October, court officers raided Khural's newsroom and confiscated all of its reporting equipment. The raid stemmed from a 2010 defamation lawsuit against the paper, filed by two presidential administration officials over a story alleging corruption. Court officers said Zeynally had failed to pay 15,000 manat (US$19,000) in damages imposed by a Baku court in the case earlier this year, Kavkazsky Uzel reported. Khural's website continues to operate, but the print edition has stopped publishing.
"Azerbaijani authorities have a long history of pursuing politically motivated prosecutions," said Nina Ognianova, CPJ's Europe and Central Asia program coordinator. "We fear that Avaz Zeynally and his newspaper, Khural, are being punished for their independent reporting. He should be released at once."