Appellate court ratifies prison sentence of Senet journalists

New York, July 9, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns Friday’s decision by an Azerbaijani appellate court in Baku to uphold the convictions of two independent journalists on charges of insulting Islam in a November commentary.

On May 4, Judge Yusif Kerimov of Sabail District Court in Baku convicted Editor-in-Chief Samir Sadagatoglu and writer Rafiq Tagi of the independent newspaper Senet of inciting religious hatred. Sadagatoglu was sentenced to four years, Tagi to three. The charges stemmed from a November 1 commentary, “Europe and Us,” in which Tagi said Islamic values were hindering Azerbaijan’s economic and political development. The article referred to Islam as a cause of infighting. Tagi and Sadagatoglu were detained that month and held in pretrial detention for more than four months.

Tagi and Sadagotoglu received death threats from Islamic hard-liners in Azerbaijan and neighboring Iran. Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Fazel Lankarani, one of Iran’s most senior clerics, issued a fatwa in November 2006, calling for the deaths of the two journalists, the BBC reported. Islamic radicals also attended the journalists’ trial in April and May. On April 26, a group of 40 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.

Rasul Safarov, the presiding judge in the Court of Appeals, issued Friday’s decision to uphold the trial court verdict. The defendants were not in court on Friday; details of the appellate ruling were not immediately available.

“Rafiq Tagi and Samir Sadagatoglu have already spent eight months in prison simply for expressing an opinion,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “While we recognize some readers may have been offended by that opinion, there is no justification for jailing journalists for what they publish or threatening them with death. We call on Azerbaijani authorities to overturn this conviction and free both journalists immediately.”

With seven behind bars, Azerbaijan is the leading jailer of journalists in the Europe and Central Asia region. It is also one of the top 10 backsliders on press freedom, according to CPJ research.