CPJ concerned about jailed journalist’s deteriorating health

New York, July 19, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned about the worsening heath of journalist Sakit Zakhidov, who is being held on drug possession charges that local press freedom activists and independent journalists say are fabricated. Sakit Zakhidov, a prominent reporter and satirist for the Baku-based daily opposition newspaper Azadliq has been in Baku police detention since June 23.

Zakhidov’s health worsened last week when he was transferred from police detention to the Bailovsk prison in Baku. Zakhidov’s lawyer Vugar Khasayev told the news agency Turan that his client has been experiencing acute chest pain and shortness of breath. Zakhidov has been suffering from heart disease for 19 years and needs regular medical care, Khasayev told CPJ.

Elchin Gambarov, also a member of Zakhidov’s defense team, told CPJ that Bailovsk prison doctors only briefly examined Zakhidov before sending him back to his cell—a small, poorly ventilated unit that he shares with three other inmates.

Baku police arrested Zakhidov on June 23 and charged him with carrying 10 grams of heroin. He faces up to 12 years in prison if convicted. Colleagues believe that Zakhidov’s arrest was in retaliation for satirical columns in Azadliq in which he criticized the Azerbaijani government and President Ilham Aliyev.

Azadliq Editor-in-Chief Qanimat Zakhidov, and other opposition journalists accused the authorities of planting drugs on Zakhidov to silence him, according to local press reports. CPJ sources noted that the journalist had told colleagues that he feared arrest for his work.

Zakhidov’s lawyers are yet to gain access to supporting evidence against their client, Khasayev told Turan.

“We are concerned about the deteriorating health of Sakit Zakhidov, who is not receiving adequate medical care in jail,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “We call on authorities to release him pending the police investigation and allow his lawyers to review all evidence against him. Given Zakhidov’s critical commentary, we view those charges with extreme skepticism.”