In Azerbaijan, embattled editor jailed for libel and insult

New York, April 20, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns today’s imprisonment in Baku of Eynulla Fatullayev, editor of the independent Russian-language weekly Realny Azerbaijan and the Azeri-language daily Gündalik Azarbaycan.

The Yasamal District Court convicted Fatullayev on charges of libeling and insulting Azerbaijanis in an Internet posting that was attributed to the editor. But Fatullayev, who is known for his critical reporting on government affairs, said he never made the comment and that the case had been manufactured to silence him.

Under Article 147.2 of Azerbaijan’s penal code, Fatullayev was ordered to serve 30 months, according to the news agency Turan. He was jailed immediately after the court hearing, becoming the fifth journalist behind bars in Azerbaijan.

“The jailing of Eynulla Fatullayev is part of a pattern of increasing repression of independent media in Azerbaijan, often through politically motivated defamation cases,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “It is outrageous that he should be imprisoned for a statement he says he never made. He should be freed immediately.”

Tatyana Chaladze, head of the Azeri Center for Protection of Refugees and Displaced Persons, filed civil lawsuit in February and a criminal complaint in April against Fatullayev. Chaladze cited a remark attributed to the editor that said Azerbaijanis were responsible for the 1992 massacre of residents of the Nagorno-Karabakh town of Khodjali, according to local press reports. The statement was a “deliberate effort to defame Khodjali residents and veterans of the Karabakh war,” the independent daily Zerkalo quoted Chaladze as saying. The Yasamal District Court ruled in favor of Chaladze’s civil claim on April 6, ordering Fatullayev to pay damages of 10,000 manats (US$11,600), Turan reported.

The remark was first published on the Web site Aztricolor, although the precise posting date was unclear. In a March interview with CPJ, Fatullayev said he never made the Khodjali statement, which was later posted on other Web sites. After the statement was circulated widely on the Internet, unidentified protesters, up to 80 at a time, started picketing the offices of Realny Azerbaijan and Gündalik Azarbaycan, he said. The protesters would come in buses to the papers’ premises and protest for 30 to 40 minutes at a time, throwing eggs and stones while shouting for Fatullayev’s expulsion, according to local press reports. Dozens of police officers, Fatullayev told CPJ, stood by. He said he believed authorities were behind the protests and had used the trumped-up case to prevent him from reporting on government corruption and the unsolved murder of former colleague Elmar Huseynov.

Realny Azerbaijan is the successor of the opposition weekly Monitor, which was shut down after the March 2005 contract-style assassination of Huseynov. Like its predecessor, Realny Azerbaijan is known for its critical reporting.

On March 6, four days after he reported that high-ranking Azeri officials ordered Huseynov’s killing, Fatullayev received a death threat, but authorities did not investigate it or provide him with personal protection.

Fatullayev told CPJ in March that his position on the Karabakh conflict was outlined in a 2005 article headlined “The Karabakh Diary.” Fatullayev, then an investigative reporter with the Monitor, traveled to Nagorno-Karabakh in February 2005 to interview leaders of the region’s unrecognized government. He received threats from Azerbaijani nationalists who opposed his trip. His piece said that constructive dialogue is the only way to alleviate tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The territorial conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh broke out during the first years of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Inter-ethnic fighting escalated when Nagorno-Karabakh’s parliament voted to form the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) in December 1991. (NKR is not recognized internationally.) A ceasefire was negotiated in 1994, but the territorial dispute lingers today.

According to official statistics, 613 people were killed in Khodjali on the night of February 25-26, 1992, when heavily armed Armenian forces stormed and captured the town.