After outcry, president pardons imprisoned opposition editor

New York, March 21, 2005—Facing international pressure, President Ilham Aliyev pardoned the imprisoned editor of an opposition newspaper yesterday as part of a decree ordering the release of dozens of political prisoners, according to local and international press reports.

Rauf Arifoglu, editor-in-chief of Yeni Musavat, had been jailed for 17 months after his arrest during the unrest that followed Aliyev’s disputed 2003 election. Aliyev has come under sustained criticism from human rights and press freedom groups, which charged that the government has used widespread imprisonment to silence its critics.

The pardons came four days after the Strasbourg, France-based Council of Europe, a 46-member pan-European human rights monitoring organization, informed the Azeri government that its membership in the organization could be jeopardized if the prisoners were not released.

Council of Europe Envoy Malcolm Bruce visited Azerbaijan’s capital of Baku last week and pressed authorities to release the prisoners by April in order to improve political conditions for November parliamentary elections.

“Rauf Arifoglu spent many months in prison in retaliation for his criticism of President Aliyev,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “His release is a positive step, but the president must do much more to improve the dreadful press conditions in his country.”

Elmar Huseynov, the founder and editor of the opposition weekly news magazine Monitor, was gunned down on March 2 in what the journalist’s colleagues believe to be a work-relating slaying.

Arifoglu could not be reached for comment today, but two colleagues said he returned home yesterday and was spending time with his family.

The Serious Crimes Court in Baku sentenced Arifoglu to five years in prison in October 2004 for allegedly organizing anti-government riots that followed the fraud-marred election of October 15, 2003, according to local and international press reports.

Arifoglu, who was arrested in October 2003 and held since that time, is the deputy director of the Musavat opposition party, but his primary duties entailed editing the party’s newspaper, Yeni Musavat. A presidential adviser told local media in December 2003 that the editor was being detained to prevent him from returning to his journalistic activities. The prosecution also introduced articles from Yeni Musavat as evidence in his trial, according to the independent news agency Turan.