In Azerbaijan, two journalists jailed for defaming president’s uncle

New York, May 16, 2007—A court in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, sentenced two journalists to 30 months in prison apiece today on charges of defaming President Ilham Aliyev’s uncle. The Committee to Protect Journalists calls for the verdict to be overturned on appeal, for the journalists to be freed in the meantime, and for the criminal defamation law to be repealed.

Yasamal District Court Judge Malahat Abdulmanafova convicted Editor-in-Chief Rovshan Kebirli and reporter Yashar Agazadeh of the Baku-based opposition daily Muhalifet on charges of defaming Jalal Aliyev under articles 147 and 148 of the criminal code, according to local and international press reports. Jalal Aliyev is also a member of parliament.

Aliyev filed a libel complaint against the journalists after a February article criticized his business activities and those of his family, according to local and international press reports. The story, which relied partly on a Turkish news report, said the Aliyevs’ import-export business profited from the family’s political connections.

“The conviction of Rovshan Kebirli and Yashar Agazadeh is part of a pattern of shamelessly using criminal defamation statutes to silence critical reporting in Azerbaijan,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “We call on the Azerbaijani authorities to repeal criminal libel laws and stop jailing journalists.”

The journalists’ lawyer, Rashid Hajili, is expected to appeal the verdict, according to Emin Huseynov, chairman of the Institute for Reporter Freedom and Safety (IRFS).

With seven journalists now in prison, Azerbaijan is the leading jailer of journalists in the region. This month, CPJ named Azerbaijan one of the world’s worst backsliders on press freedom. According to CPJ research, President Ilham Aliyev and his allies have filed criminal defamation lawsuits and lodged spurious drug charges to silence critical media.

Kebirli and Agazadeh are being held in the Bailov Prison in Baku, the news Web site Day reported.