Editor slammed with hefty sentence

New York, October 30, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists denounces a lengthy prison sentence handed down today by an Azerbaijani court to independent editor Eynulla Fatullayev. Fatullayev is already serving a two-and-a-half-year prison term for allegedly defaming Azerbaijanis in an Internet posting he says he did not write, and has been sentenced to another eight-and-a-half years.

Judge Mekhdi Asadov of the Azerbaijani Court of Heavy Crimes in the capital of Baku convicted Fatullayev on charges of terrorism, incitement of ethnic hatred, and tax evasion. Fatullayev was editor of the now-shuttered Azeri-language daily Gündalik Azarbaycan and the Russian-language weekly Realny Azerbaijan.

“This was not a trial but a political persecution,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We hold President Aliyev responsible and demand that he order Fatullayev’s release from jail. Clearly the government of Azerbaijan is using the legal system to persecute its critics.”

In April, the Yasamal District Court in Baku sentenced Fatullayev to his first prison term for an article he maintains he did not write. In July, the Ministry of National Security charged Fatullayev with terrorism and incitement of ethnic and religious hatred, stemming from a sharply critical piece on President Ilham Aliyev’s foreign policy regarding Iran. While the story was published earlier this year in Realny Azerbaijan, another reporter was the author. In September, the government added a third charge of tax evasion.

Besides the eight-and-a-half-year prison term, the court also ruled that everything in Fatullayev’s two newspaper’s offices would be confiscated, and that he pay a fine of 250,000 manat (US$58,000), Fatullayev’s defense lawyer Isakhan Ashurov, told CPJ.

Uzeir Jafarov, who succeeded Fatullayev as editor of Gündalik Azarbaycan, told the news Web site Kavkazky Uzel that the government filed the tax evasion charge after repeatedly interrogating his papers’ staffers. He said they were questioned about their salaries and the publication’s sources of financing.

 “I am speechless about the court,” Fatullayev’s lawyer told CPJ. “The judge today played the role of a notary public and rubber-stamped the prosecution’s demands.”

Emin Huseynov, director of the Baku-based Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, said the trial reminded him of those in Stalin’s time, when judges admitted clearly false testimonies. He said independent journalists and human rights activists were not allowed to take notes during the court proceedings and authorities in the courtroom prevented many of Fatullayev’s supporters from attending.

The persecution against Fatullayev started in April, soon after he raised questions about alleged government involvement in the unsolved 2005 slaying of editor Elmar Huseynov.