Journalists jailed for inciting religious hatred

New York, May 4, 2007—A court in Azerbaijan jailed two independent journalists today over an article that said Islam was hampering economic and political progress. The Committee to Protect Journalists, which this week named Azerbaijan as one of the top 10 countries where press freedom has deteriorated, condemned the conviction.

Reporter Rafiq Tagi and editor Samir Sadagatoglu of the independent newspaper Senet were convicted of inciting religious hatred and sentenced to three and four years in prison respectively by judge Yusif Kerimov of the Sabail district court in Baku. Tagi and Sadagatoglu published an article on November 1 titled “Europe and Us,” which said that Islam’s influence was hindering Azerbaijan’s economic and political development, according to international press reports. The journalists were detained that month and held in pretrial detention for more than four months.

Tagi, who wrote the article, told the court today that he was innocent and did not intend to insult religious sensitivities, the independent Turan news agency reported. Raset Pirisoyu, the chairman of the Committee to Defend the Rights of Samir Sadagatoglu, told CPJ the journalists would appeal.

“Rafiq Tagi and Samir Sadagatoglu have the right to express their views,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “While we recognize some readers may have been offended by this article, there is no justification for jailing journalists for what they publish or threatening them for their opinion. We call on Azerbaijani authorities to overturn this conviction and free both men immediately.”

Tagi and Sadagatoglu also received death threats from Islamic radicals in Azerbaijan and neighboring Iran, who demanded the journalists be executed, according to local press reports. Religious activists also attended the trial’s court sessions. On April 26, a group of forty activists openly threatened Tagi and Sadagatoglu and harassed several other journalists covering the trial, the Moscow-based media watchdog Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations reported. Pirisoyu told CPJ he believes the journalists are in danger of violent action from radicals or their supporters while in custody.

“The authorities must investigate these threats and prosecute those responsible,” Simon added.