In Azerbaijan, editor sentenced to prison in defamation case

New York, August 10, 2006-A judge in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, today convicted the editor of an Azeri-language independent newspaper on a charge of criminally defaming a leader of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party, according to international news reports. Shakhin Agabeili, editor-in-chief of Milli Yol, was sentenced to a year in prison in connection with the 2005 article, but a Milli Yol journalist said Agabeili did not write the article and was not editor at the time of its publication.

“We’re alarmed that a court has imprisoned a journalist for a published report, and we’re particularly concerned by the politicized nature of this case,” said Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The trial and conviction came just a day after plainclothes police picked up Agabeili at a subway station. Arif Ragimzade, vice speaker of Parliament and a one-time political rival of Agabeili, had filed a criminal complaint in July. He blamed Agabeili for a Milli Yol article in late 2005 that accused the politician of taking bribes.

“It’s surprising that the article in question was published nine months ago and the lawsuit was filed just 20 days ago,” Pervin Kazimoglu, deputy editor of Milli Yol, told reporters. He noted that Agabeili was not the author or the editor at the time, according to international press reports.

But Agabeili was running in Azerbaijani parliamentary elections late last year, on an opposition party slate. President Ilham Aliyev’s Yeni Azerbaijan Party won a large majority in the November election, which many viewed as flawed.

Agabeili faces another criminal defamation case from Interior Minister Ramil Usubov. He alleges that Agabeili wrote an article linking him to Haji Mammadov, a former Interior Ministry officer facing trial on murder and kidnapping charges. (See CPJ’s alert ) “Those who try to offend the police … who write defamatory articles should be prosecuted,” Usubov told journalists, according to Agence France-Presse.

Azerbaijan’s press freedom landscape has been saturated by politicized lawsuits against opposition and independent media. Journalists routinely face defamation charges and criminal investigations in response to their critical reporting, CPJ research shows.