New York, March 31, 2005—Azerbaijan’s Supreme Court has upheld the October 2004 conviction of Rauf Arifoglu, editor-in-chief of the opposition newspaper Yeni Musavat, on charges of organizing anti-government riots, according to local and international press reports. The criminal conviction was widely considered to have been politically motivated.
“The many irregularities in Rauf Arifoglu’s 2004 trial, which have been well-documented, should have raised questions for the Supreme Court,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “By failing to address these issues, the court appears indifferent to the interests of fair and impartial justice.”
Facing international pressure, President Ilham Aliyev pardoned Arifoglu on March 20 as part of a decree ordering the release of dozens of political prisoners. Arifoglu, along with six opposition activists who were codefendants, filed an appeal with the Supreme Court, but the court rejected their arguments on Tuesday. Press reports did not indicate why the court rejected the appeal. With the conviction left standing, Arifoglu will be prohibited from running in parliamentary elections set for November.
Arifoglu could not be reached for comment, but the defendants said they would seek a ruling from the Strasbourg, France-based European Court for Human Rights, the independent Baku-based news agency Turan reported.
Arifoglu was arrested in October 2003 and held for 17 months on charges of organizing the anti-government riots that followed fraud-tainted elections in October 2003. He 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.
The Serious Crimes Court in Baku sentenced Arifoglu to five years in prison in October 2004. But the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe issued a 97-page report this year that described irregularities and abuses during the trial (see: http://www.osce.org/documents/odihr/2005/02/4233_en.pdf ).
The OSCE report expressed deep concern regarding “credible allegations of torture and ill-treatment of detainees, the absence of adequate judicial action or remedies in the face of these serious allegations, and the acceptance by the courts of evidence said to have been derived through torture and coercion.”
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. In March, the Strasbourg, France-based Council of Europe, a 46-member pan-European human rights monitoring organization, informed the Azeri government that its membership could be jeopardized if some of these political prisoners were not released.