Critical journalist held on spurious drug charge, colleagues say

New York, July 11, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned by the detention of a critical journalist in Azerbaijan on what local press freedom activists and opposition journalists call trumped up drug charges. Sakit Zakhidov, a prominent reporter and satirist for the Baku-based daily opposition newspaper Azadlyg, has been held since June 23.

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 agreed with the accusation, noting that the journalist had earlier told colleagues that he feared arrest for his work.

On June 23, police arrested Zakhidov and charged him with carrying a third of an ounce (10 grams) of heroin. On June 30, an appeals court confirmed his remand. He faces up to 12 years in prison if convicted.

“We view these charges with extreme skepticism given Zakhidov’s history of critical journalism,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “We call on Azeri authorities to release Sakit Zakhidov immediately pending the police investigation. At the same time, the authorities should open a separate investigation to determine whether there was police misconduct.”
Opposition journalists and human rights activists have formed a group to campaign for Zakhidov’s release, which has appealed to the Council of Europe, and to Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev.

Emin Huseynov, a member of the group, told CPJ that 10 days before his arrest, Zakhidov told colleagues he was being followed and expected to be arrested. Zakhidov’s lawyer, Elchin Gambarov, told CPJ that the substance found on Zakhidov was planted.