Azerbaijan: Ninth journalist imprisoned

New York, November 12, 2007—Azerbaijani newspaper editor Genimet Zahidov of the prominent opposition daily Azadlig (Freedom) was given two months of pre-trial detention on Sunday while authorities investigate charges of “hooliganism” and inflicting “minor bodily harm.” Zahidov was arrested and sent to a Baku pre-trial detention center the same day. The two charges brought against Zahidov carry up to six years in prison combined.

“We are greatly disturbed by the actions of the Azerbaijani authorities, who use spurious charges to gag opposition journalists,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “Azerbaijan has imprisoned three journalists in the past month, making Zahidov the country’s ninth journalist currently behind bars. Azerbaijan shamefully remains the leading jailer of journalists in Europe and Central Asia. We call on the prosecutor to drop all charges in this case.”

Yasamal district police in Baku arrested Zahidov on Saturday. According to local press reports, Zahidov was attacked by a young man and woman on Wednesday near his offices in Baku. Zahidov told reporters that the woman, Sevgilade Guliyeva, started screaming as if he had insulted her; a minute later, the man with her, Vusal Hasanov, tried to attack him. With the help of passersby, Zahidov was able to fend them off. But the man and woman later filed complaints against the journalist, the local press reported today.

“Police invited Zahidov in as a victim of an attack, but two hours after his arrival he became a suspect and was arrested,” Emin Huseynov, director of the Baku-based Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS), told CPJ. “They kept Zahidov for nine hours and interrogated him without his lawyer present. The next day, Zahidov—a prominent critic of Prezident Aliyev’s regime—was imprisoned.”

Huseynov told CPJ that police surrounded the court and Zahidov was brought into the building under heavy guard “as if he was a terrorist.”

IRFS reported that Azerbaijan Foreign Ministry spokesman Hazar Ibragim said in a statement that “journalists should work within the framework of Azerbaijani law.”

Zahidov has withstood a spate of official persecution. In September, Minister of Economic Development Geidar Babayev filed a defamation lawsuit against Zahidov for an article he wrote in Azadlig. In October, the state traffic police deputy chief filed a similar complaint against the newspaper for an article on corruption in his agency. Zahidov’s brother, prominent reporter and satirist Sakit Zahidov, is also serving a prison term on a false charge of drug possession.

On October 30, editor Eynulla Fatullayev was given eight-and-a-half years on top of a two-and-a-half-year sentence he was already serving, and on November 6, editor Nazim Guliyev was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison.