Assets of opposition newspaper frozen

New York, January 7, 2005—The independent Azerbaijani opposition newspaper Yeni Musavat ceased publication indefinitely on December 31, 2004, because a court froze the paperís assets and bank account after ordering it to pay hefty libel damages to several government officials.

The damages, which total nearly 800 million manats (US$160,000), stem from seven different defamation lawsuits launched mainly by government officials against the paper between 2000 and 2003. The court froze the paperís assets on November 15, 2004. Qabil Abbasoglu, Yeni Musavatís acting editor-in-chief, told CPJ it is unclear when or whether the paper will be able to resume publication.

In November 2003, the Sabail District Court in Baku awarded 400 million manats (US$80,000) to Azerbaijanís ambassador to Turkey, Mammad Aliyev, who had sued Yeni Musavat that month for a July 2003 article that allegedly misquoted him commenting on then-President Heydar Aliyevís health, according to local CPJ sources. Several other publications quoted the ambassador about the presidentís health at that time, but only Yeni Musavat was sued.

Plaintiffs in the other defamation suits against Yeni Musavat include Defense Minister Safar Abiyev and President Ilham Aliyevís uncle, according to the Baku-based news agency Turan.

Arif Aliyev (no relations to the president), director of the Baku Press Club, said authorities were using Azerbaijanís courts to shutter the paper, The Associated Press reported.

“We are very concerned that an important critical voice has been silenced because it has been financially destroyed by Azerbaijanís politicized courts,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “We call on Azerbaijani authorities to stop their persecution of Yeni Musavat and the opposition press.”

History of harassment
Yeni Musavat, the high-circulation newspaper associated with the opposition party Musavat, has endured harassment by Azerbaijanís courts for years. In February 2003, libel suits against the publication resulted in fines of 100,000 euros (US$130,000).

In October 2003, the newspaperís editor-in-chief, Rauf Arifoglu, who is also deputy director of the Musavat political party, was arrested for allegedly organizing antigovernment riots following the fraud-marred presidential election of October 15, 2003.

On October 22, 2004, the Serious Crimes Court in Baku sentenced Arifoglu to five years in prison for organizing the riots. On December 29, 2004, President Aliyev signed an amnesty decree that freed 54 Azeri prisoners, but Rauf Arifoglu was not among them.

Local journalists and human rights activists have told CPJ they believe that the criminal charges against Arifoglu were an effort to silence him and Yeni Musavat for their critical reporting on Azerbaijan governmentís activities. They cited weak prosecutorial evidence and numerous procedural violations during the trial.