Supreme Court upholds Azerbaijani editor’s prison sentence

New York, August 24, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists denounces the continued imprisonment of Eynulla Fatullayev, editor of the now-shuttered Russian-language weekly Realny Azerbaijan and the Azeri-language daily Gündalik Azarbaycan.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court of Azerbaijan upheld Fatullayev’s 30-month prison sentence on charges of defaming Azerbaijanis in an article. Fatullayev has been held in the Ministry of National Security isolation ward since his April 20 conviction by the Yasamal District Court in Baku. His family has been denied visitation rights, said Uzeir Jafarov, editor after Fatullayev of Gündalik Azarbaycan and Fatullayev’s trustee.

Neither Jafarov nor Fatullayev’s defense lawyer, Isakhan Ashurov, were notified of Wednesday’s Supreme Court hearing, Jafarov told CPJ. A four-judge panel affirmed Fatullayev’s earlier verdict in the absence of legal counsel and journalists. Fatullayev’s defense is preparing an appeal to the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights, Jafarov told CPJ.

“We are shocked by the continued politicized imprisonment of Eynulla Fatullayev and the harassment of his staffers,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “We call on Azerbaijani authorities to drop all charges against Fatullayev, release him immediately, and allow his two newspapers to resume work without fear of reprisal.

In addition to being imprisoned on a defamation indictment, Fatullayev is being investigated on a vague charge of “terrorism,” filed against him by national security authorities in May. If convicted, the embattled editor faces 12 additional years behind bars. In late May, agents searched both Realny Azerbaijan’s and Gündalik Azarbaycan’s offices for ties to terrorism, and confiscated all the papers’ 21 computers, in effect paralyzing the newsrooms’ operations. The newspapers’ staffers have been unemployed since, Jafarov told CPJ. The ministry has interrogated at least five of the journalists, according to local press reports.

Defamation charges against Fatullayev stemmed from an undated Internet posting attributed to him, which he said he did not write. 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 the remark, which said Azerbaijanis were responsible for the 1992 massacre of ethnic Azeri residents of the Nagorno-Karabakh town of Khodjali, according to local press reports.

Later, press reports said Fatullayev’s April conviction was actually based on his 2005 article titled “Karabakhsky Dnevnik” (“Karabakh Diary”), in which he wrote that Armenian forces had given an escape corridor to Azeri civilians who would try to flee Khodjali. Fatullayev had published the article in Realny Azerbaijan’s predecessor, the opposition magazine Monitor, which folded after the March 2, 2005, contract-style murder of its editor, Elmar Huseynov. However, Fatullayev was convicted because of the Internet comment attributed to him, not because of this article.

The terror charge against Fatullayev comes from a commentary, headlined “The Aliyevs Go to War,” published earlier this year in the Russian-language weekly Realny Azerbaijan and written by reporter Rovshan Bagirov. The commentary focused on President Ilham Aliyev’s foreign policy regarding Iran. It contained harsh, critical language about the Azerbaijani government. Security officials did not elaborate on the charges or explain how the piece amounted to terrorism. The criminal investigation of Fatullayev on that charge is ongoing, according to local press reports.

With seven behind bars, Azerbaijan is the leading jailer of journalists in Europe and Central Asia. On August 2, CPJ expressed its concern regarding Azerbaijan’s press freedom record at a U.S. Helsinki Commission hearing on “Freedom of the Media in the OSCE Region.”