Opposition journalist sentenced to 3 years jail

New York, October 4, 2006The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the three-year prison sentence given today to a critical journalist in Azerbaijan on what local press freedom activists called trumped up drug charges.

Sakit Zakhidov, a prominent reporter and satirist for the daily opposition newspaper Azadlyg, was convicted of drug use by a court in the capital Baku.

“The jailing of Sakit Zakhidov comes amid a widespread crackdown on opposition and independent journalists in Azerbaijan,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We view this drug conviction with extreme skepticism given Zakhidov’s history of critical journalism.”

CPJ wrote to Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev this week to protest Zakhidov’s prosecution and the government’s onslaught against the press. Read the letter here.

Zakhidov was arrested June 23 and charged with possession of narcotics with intent to sell. On September 26, the prosecution told the court it could not prove intent to sell, so prosecuted the journalist on the lesser charge of drug use.

The court allowed Zakhidov to speak after he was sentenced. “For some time, the law enforcement agencies planned this operation with the goal of isolating me and stopping me from writing poetry, which mocked government officials,” the Russian-language independent daily Ekho quoted Zakhidov as saying.

Zakhidov said he neither used nor sold drugs. “I have never used drugs. Police officer Adil Alekperov, who led the operation, placed the drugs in my pocket during my arrest,” the Russian online newspaper Kavkazsky Yzel quoted him as saying.

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 President Aliyev.

“Those in power are already preparing for the presidential election (in 2008) and are trying to neutralize everyone who could endanger future attempts to commit fraud,” Zakhidov’s brother, Azadlyg editor Ganimad Zakhidov, told Agence France Presse.

Emin Huseynov, chairman of the Committee to Defend the Rights of Sakit Zakhidov, told CPJ that Zakhidov was not receiving treatment in prison for a longstanding heart condition.