CPJ calls for end to crackdown on independent media

October 2, 2006

His Excellency Ilham Aliyev
President of Azerbaijan
19 Istiglaliyat Street
Baku, Azerbaijan 370066

Via facsimile: 011-994-12-920-625

Your Excellency:

The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply troubled by an intense crackdown on opposition and independent journalists who have been critical of public officials. In particular, we wish to call your attention to the cases of journalists Shakhin Agabeili, Eynulla Fatullayev, Fikret Faramazoglu, and Sakit Zakhidov. In a disturbing trend, several public officials have filed about a dozen politicized lawsuits against critical journalists in the past three months. Among the plaintiffs is Interior Minister Ramil Usubov who filed five defamation lawsuits against Agabeili, Fatullayev and Faramazoglu. We condemn this campaign of harassment of Azerbaijan’s independent press and call on you to do everything within your power to stop it.

Here are the cases:

Shakhin AgabeiliOn August 10, Judge Gyulzar Tagizade of the Nasimi District Court in Baku convicted Shakhin Agabeili, editor-in-chief of the independent weekly Milli Yol, of defaming Parliament Vice Speaker Arif Ragimzade in a 2005 article, which accused Ragimzade of accepting bribes. Agabeili was sentenced to one year in prison.

In a separate case, Interior Minister Usubov filed a defamation suit against Agabeili, stemming from an article titled “Shameless Man,” published in Milli Yol‘s July 24-30 issue. Usubov alleged the article wrongfully accused him of ties with Haji Mammadov, a former Interior Ministry official on trial for murder and kidnapping. Usubov withdrew his complaint after Agabeili’s conviction in the above-mentioned case and after Agabeili apologized to him following a week-long imprisonment and interrogation that, his colleagues suspect, led to the apology.

Agabeili is currently being held in the Bailovsk prison in Baku and he is prevented from receiving visitors. Journalists in Azerbaijan called his prison sentence “harsh” and “inappropriate,” and attributed it to the government’s long-standing intolerance of Agabeili’s critical reporting. In October 2003, then Member of Parliament Fazail Agamaly of the pro-government Ana Vaten party, publicly threatened “to squash Shakhin Agabeili and other cockroaches like him.”

Eynulla FatullayevIn early August, Minister Usubov filed three criminal defamation suits against the independent weekly newspaper Realny Azerbaijan and its editor-in-chief, Eynulla Fatullayev, in response to articles titled “The revenge of the antibiotic,” “The failure of the antibiotic,” and “The antibiotic and journalists,” published in July and August, which also alleged ties between Usubov and Mammadov. On September 26, Judge Malakhat Abdulmanafova of the Yasamal District Court in Baku convicted Fatullayev of criminal libel and insult and sentenced him to a conditional two-year prison term, ordered him to publish a retraction, and pay a fine of 10,000 manats (US$11,300) in moral damages to Usubov. In addition, the newspaper was fined 5,000 manats (US$5,600) in damages. Fatullayev plans to appeal the decision. Defense lawyer Isakhan Ashurov said the ruling was wrong. “The court’s decision was unjust, illegal and groundless and was passed with gross violations of Azerbaijani and European laws,” The Associated Press quoted Ashurov as saying. “Fatullayev’s guilt was not proven.”
With over 30,000 readers, Realny Azerbaijan is one of the country’s most popular newspapers. Local journalists suspect that these charges are in retaliation for the paper’s heavy criticism of the government, especially of the Interior Ministry, according to CPJ sources. Today, in response to the official campaign against the paper, Fatullayev announced the closure of Realny Azerbaijan, the local press reported.

Fikret FaramazogluIn August, Minister Usubov filed criminal defamation charges against the Baku-based weekly opposition newspaper 24 Saat and its editor-in-chief, Fikret Faramazoglu, in response to articles titled “Ramil Usubov’s Lawsuit” and “The Minister Needs 10,000 Manat” published on July 26 and 27, respectively. Faramazoglu was charged with libel and insult. On August 26, Judge Famil Nasibov of the Nasimi District Court found Faramazoglu guilty on both charges and sentenced him to a suspended one-year prison term. The paper and Faramazoglu were also fined 500 manats (US$600) each.

In September, Member of Parliament Dzhavid Gurbanov also filed defamation charges against Faramazoglu, alleging the newspaper published articles at the end of August, which questioned his ethnicity and relations with controversial former Health Minister Ali Insanov, who was arrested in October 2005 and accused of plotting a coup. Azerbaijan’s criminal code stipulates that if found guilty of a second set of criminal libel charges, Faramazoglu would have to serve prison time. The maximum penalty for Article 147, under which Faramazoglu is being charged, is up to three years in prison.

Sakit ZakhidovOn June 23, police arrested Sakit Zakhidov, a prominent reporter and satirist for the Baku-based daily opposition newspaper Azadlyg and charged him with carrying a third of an ounce (10 grams) of heroin. Zakhidov was initially charged under Article 234.4 of the criminal code, possession of narcotics with the intent to sell, with a maximum penalty of 12 years in prison if convicted. On September 26, Public Prosecutor Shamil Guliyev told the Nasimi District Court, presided by Judge Azer Orudzhev, that the prosecution could not prove the drug selling charge and asked that the court change the charge to Article 234.1, drug use, with a maximum penalty of three years in prison.

Zakhidov denied both charges, maintaining that the drugs were planted on him by police during his arrest. Journalists in Azerbaijan have condemned the charges, saying that they are aimed at silencing the outspoken Zakhidov who has been sharply critical of the government. Colleagues also noted that Zakhidov’s arrest came only three days after Executive Secretary Ali Akhmedov of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party publicly urged authorities to take measures and silence Zakhidov. At a June 20 panel on media freedom, Akhmedov said: “No government official or member of parliament has avoided his [Zakhidov’s] slanders. Someone should put an end to it,” the news Web site Eurasianet reported.

Zakhidov suffers from a heart disease and must receive regular medical care, which is not available to him in custody, sources told CPJ.

As a nonpartisan organization dedicated to the defense of press freedom, CPJ believes that reporting should not constitute a criminal offense and journalists should not be imprisoned for their work. Public officials, because of their role, are in the center of public debate and subject to a greater public scrutiny, which they should be able to tolerate.

CPJ calls on Your Excellency to do everything in his power to ensure that authorities, including Interior Minister Ramil Usubov, stop their criminal prosecution of Shakhin Agabeili, Eynulla Fatullayev, Fikret Faramazoglu and Sakit Zakhidov. We call for the immediate release of Agabeili and Zakhidov. We urge Your Excellency to work with legal authorities and scrap the archaic libel stipulations of Azerbaijan’s criminal code. Practice in democratic countries has shown that civil codes provide sufficient redress for insult and defamation.

Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters.

We await your reply.


Joel Simon
Executive Director