New York, September 1, 2000 — Rauf Arifoglu, editor-in-chief of the Azeri opposition daily Yeni Musavat, was officially charged on August 29 with attempted hijacking, terrorism, and illegal possession of arms, after spending a week in solitary confinement at the Ministry for National Security, according to local and international media. If convicted, the journalist faces between five and 10 years in prison.
The charges result from Yeni Musavat‘s coverage of an attempted airplane hijacking in Nakhchivan, an Azeri enclave located between Armenia and Turkey. The hijacker, a member of the opposition Musavat, called Arifoglu from the plane to dictate his demands, which he wanted the editor to publish in the party’s newspaper, Yeni Musavat.
Arifoglu immediately notified the police, offering to turn over his tape recording of the hijacker’s demands. Azeri authorities, however, have tried to make the unlikely case that the editor helped plan the hijacking. On August 22, Arifoglu was summoned to the prosecutor’s office for questioning. Officials interrogated the editor for four hours, and then escorted him to his apartment, where they searched the premises. Arifoglu’s lawyer was not allowed to be present during the search.
“We deplore Arifoglu’s illegal arrest and the absurd charges pressed against him,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “We fear that this incident, along with other press-freedom violations in the past few weeks, constitute an organized government campaign to stifle independent journalism in Azerbaijan during the run-up to the November 5 parliamentary elections.”
While the search was still going on, Arifoglu announced that investigators had planted the gun in his apartment. He now argues that all charges against him are politically motivated and based on trumped-up evidence. Arifoglu also believes that Azeri authorities are trying to prevent him from running in the November election (he had been registered as a Musavat candidate). Under local law, a convicted criminal cannot run for public office.
Arifoglu has been held at the Ministry for National Security since his arrest, since authorities refused to free him on bail after the arraignment. The editor is refusing to cooperate with investigators; he launched a hunger strike on August 28. Arifoglu’s colleagues are concerned about his health (he has a duodenal ulcer) and called on him to end the strike.
Meanwhile, Arifoglu’s lawyer, Vidadi Mahmudov, was summoned to the prosecutor’s office on August 31. He was accused of leaking privileged information relating to the investigation, according to the Turan news agency. Other Musavat Party officials have also been questioned in connection with the hijack attempt, although the hijacker has claimed sole responsibility for the incident.
“CPJ calls on Azeri authorities to release the editor immediately and drop all charges against him, and to create an atmosphere in which all journalists in Azerbaijan may cover the news without interference from the government,” Cooper said.