Azerbaijani president pardons five journalists; three left behind bars 

New York, December 28, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomes today’s pardon of five journalists imprisoned in Azerbaijan, but it calls on President Ilham Aliyev to free the three journalists who remain unjustly jailed.

Samir Sadagatoglu, Rafiq Tagi, Faramaz Novruzoglu, Rovshan Kebirli, and Yashar Agazadeh were among 114 prisoners pardoned by presidential decree. The five had been jailed in 2006 and 2007 on charges of defamation and inciting religious hatred. The Baku-based Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety said the pardoned journalists should be freed by early next week.

“We’re relieved to hear that our colleagues will be released, but we urge Azerbaijani authorities to set free the remaining journalists who are wrongly jailed for their work,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “Authorities should use this opportunity to decriminalize defamation and stop repressing independent journalists.”

Three journalists continue to serve prison terms: Eynulla Fatullayev and the brothers Genimet and Sakit Zakhidov.

Authorities targeted Fatullayev, editor of the independent Russian-language weekly Realny Azerbaijan and the Azeri-language daily Gündalik Azarbaycan, in a series of politically motivated criminal prosecutions in 2007. The persecution began shortly after Fatullayev published an in-depth report alleging an official cover-up in the 2005 slaying of fellow Azerbaijani editor Elmar Huseynov. Fatullayev is now serving a prison term on trumped-up charges of defamation, terrorism, incitement to ethnic hatred, and tax evasion.

Genimet Zakhidov, editor of the prominent opposition daily Azadlig (Freedom), was placed in pretrial detention in November on a “hooliganism” charge. His brother and Azadlyg colleague, Sakit Zakhidov, is serving a three-year sentence on a heroin possession charge. Sakit Zakhidov said a police officer planted the drugs.

Azerbaijan has been one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists. Nine editors and reporters were jailed when CPJ conducted its annual census of imprisoned journalists on December 1. On Wednesday, an appeals court in Baku ordered the release of Nazim Guliyev, editor of the pro-government daily Ideal. He had been jailed in November on defamation charges.