The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is deeply concerned that Azerbaijani journalist Irada Huseynova, who lives and works in Moscow, cannot attend an international meeting of freedom of expression groups in Azerbaijan in mid-June because she faces arrest on criminal defamation charges should she return to the capital, Baku. Huseynova was invited by the Toronto-based International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), which will hold its meeting in Baku beginning June 14.
We call on your government to drop the charges against her in recognition that public officials are always at the center of public debate and should be able to tolerate criticism by the press. There is a growing international consensus that journalists should never be criminally prosecuted for doing their jobs. Independent and opposition media cannot report and comment on the news as long as defamation remains a criminal offense. The charges against Huseynova are politically motivated and designed to punish her for fulfilling her role in the media as a watchdog that monitors government performance.
Huseynova’s prosecution stems from an article she wrote in June 2001 for the independent Baku weekly Bakinsky Bulvar that criticized Baku Mayor Hajibala Abutalibov for closing important tram lines in Baku; building water fountains in Baku during a water shortage; and closing and demolishing commercial kiosks, a move that left many unemployed.
In September 2001, Huseynova, along with Bakinsky Bulvar founder Elmar Huseynov and Editor-in-Chief Bella Zakirova, were convicted of civil defamation and fined. That same month, Bakinsky Bulvar was closed, and Huseynova left Azerbaijan to attend a conference in Poland. While she was in Poland, an Azerbaijani court launched criminal defamation proceedings against Huseynova and her colleagues, and Huseynova was put on an Azerbaijani government wanted list.
When the conference ended in late September, she traveled to Moscow, and a year later, she began working as an editor and later as an analyst for the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations (CJES), a Russian press freedom organization.
Although Huseynova could not be tried while outside the country, her colleagues were convicted of criminal defamation in September 2001.
On November 25, 2002, Russian police arrested Huseynova at the request of Azerbaijani authorities, who wanted her extradited to face the defamation charges. CJES immediately issued a statement, and Huseynova was released two days later after local and international press freedom and human rights organizations protested the arrest.
Because of the criminal defamation case pending against her in Azerbaijan, Huseynova is unable to travel to Baku to renew her Soviet-era passport, which expires in June, and will soon be stranded in Russia.
Huseynova’s case has drawn increased attention in Azerbaijan in recent weeks. The country’s ombudsman, Elmira Suleymanova, met with Baku Mayor Abutalibov in early spring this year and asked him to drop the criminal defamation case against Huseynova, but he refused.
The IFEX meeting brings together representatives of 57 freedom of expression groups from around the world, all of whom are copied below. Azerbaijan’s press freedom record will come under considerable scrutiny during the meeting, and we believe that it would reflect very poorly on your government if a prominent Azerbaijani journalist invited to this meeting to share her views were prohibited from attending because of the politically motivated charges against her.
Your Excellency, we recognize the steps you have taken to improve press freedom conditions in Azerbaijan by vetoing a restrictive media bill on public television and abolishing the Ministry of Information. However, these advances must be weighed against the criminal prosecution of a journalist, which, as noted earlier, is contrary to growing international practice, particularly as established in democracies, where civil remedies are recognized as adequate redress for defamation.
We urge you to do everything within your power to ensure that the charges against Irada Huseynova are dropped immediately so that she can attend the IFEX conference. We also urge you to work toward eliminating criminal defamation provisions from your country’s penal code.
Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter. We await your apply.