Two journalists sentenced for defaming interior minister

New York, January 31, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by the criminal libel convictions of two journalists in a suit filed by Azerbaijan’s interior minister who has launched a barrage of defamation suits to silence independent media.

Reporter Faramaz Novruzoglu and Editor-in-chief Sardar Alibeili of the weekly independent newspaper Nota Bene were sentenced to two years in prison and 18 months’ corrective labor respectively by a Baku court on Tuesday. Judge Muslim Aliyev of the Narimanovsky Court convicted them of defamation under Articles 147 and 148 of the Criminal Code, according to local press reports.

Interior Minister Ramil Usubov filed suit after the paper published a series of articles critical of him and other senior government officials in December, the independent Turan news agency reported. The articles focused on friction and corruption in the interior ministry.

“We condemn the rulings against our colleagues Faramaz Novruzoglu and Sardar Alibeili,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “They are part of a blatant pattern of intimidation by Interior Minister Ramil Usubov who has filed at least six criminal libel lawsuits against independent and opposition journalists in the past year. The minister is a public official and is subject to public scrutiny. We call on the authorities to overturn this conviction.”

Local journalists and human rights activists told CPJ that the lawsuits are an attempt to stifle critical coverage of the Interior Ministry in the aftermath of a former ministry official’s trial on murder and kidnapping charges.

Novruzoglu was taken to a Baku prison immediately after the court hearing. In accordance with the corrective labor ruling, Alibeili will be given a state-assigned job and expected to contribute a portion of his salary to the government, according to local press reports. The journalists’ representatives did not say whether they planned to appeal.