Court extends journalists’ pretrial detention

New York, January 12, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists deplores a Baku court’s decision to extend by two months the pretrial detention of two journalists accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

Editor-in-Chief Samir Sadagatoglu and reporter Rafiq Tagi of the independent newspaper Senet were arrested on November 15, after publishing an article that alleged Islam’s influence was hindering Azerbaijan’s economic and political development. The Nasimi District Court initially ordered that Sadagatoglu and Tagi be kept in pretrial detention for two months with a trial expected to begin in mid-January, according to international press reports.

But on Thursday, Nasimi District Court Judge Gulnar Tagizade extended the pretrial detention for another two months, according to CPJ sources and local press reports.
The judge did not publicly explain the decision, although a source told CPJ that police claim to need more time to finish their investigation. Azerbaijani law sets a maximum pretrial detention period of three months, but authorities can seek renewals. CPJ research shows authorities have renewed pretrial detentions for protracted periods.

The journalists are charged with inciting national, ethnic, or religious hatred under Article 283 of the penal code, which could bring up to five years in prison upon conviction, according to international press reports.

Tagi’s article provoked outrage among hard-line Islamists in Azerbaijan and Iran, who called for the journalists to be executed, according to local press reports. Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Fazel Lankarani, one of Iran’s most senior clerics, issued a fatwa calling for the deaths of the two journalists. After the article was published, Tagi and his family were placed under police protection, according to local press reports.

“We call on Azerbaijani authorities to respect press freedom and release Rafiq Tagi and Samir Sadagatoglu,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “While religious sensitivities should be respected, journalists should not be imprisoned or threatened merely for expressing their views.”

Sadagatoglu and Tagi are being held at the Ministry of National Security’s remand center, according to local press reports.