Tenth Azerbaijani journalist imprisoned

New York, December 6, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the jailing today of yet another journalist in Azerbaijan, making him the tenth currently behind bars in the country.

Ilgar Nasibov, correspondent for the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in the western exclave of Nakhchivan, was arrested; summarily tried without defense counsel; and sentenced to 90 days in jail on charges of defaming the Nakhchivan city police chief.

In a separate incident, Nakhchivan police raided Nasibov’s home and confiscated the computer Nasibov shares with his wife, journalist Malahet Nasibova, who also reports for RFE/RL. The Nasibovs have covered numerous incidents of human rights violations and official abuse of power in the exclave for RFE/RL, the broadcaster said in a statement. In addition to working for the radio station, the couple covers Nakhchivan for the independent Azeri news agency Turan, according to the Baku-based Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety.

“Azerbaijan has reached a new shameful record in its unscrupulous persecution of independent journalists as Europe and Central Asia’s leading jailer of journalists,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We call on Nakhchivan authorities to immediately release Ilgar Nasibov, return the illegally confiscated computer to Malahet Nasibova, and cease their harassment of the two journalists.”

Nasibov’s imprisonment stems from a November 4 letter he sent to the personal e-mail address of President Ilham Aliyev. In the letter, he complained to Aliyev that Nakhchivan City Police Department Deputy Chief Ershad Ibrahimov insulted Malahet Nasibova, calling her a “traitor,” when she tried to cover a local protest rally the same day, IRFS said in a statement.

Ibrahimov filed a defamation lawsuit against Ilgar Nasibov on Monday; on Tuesday, he retracted the lawsuit; but today, when Judge Ulvi Ismayilov called Nasibov to Nakhchivan City Court allegedly to sign papers to dismiss the suit, the journalist found out the charges had been reinstated. Judge Ismayilov tried Nasibov without counsel, and sentenced him to serve three months in jail. He was to be immediately taken to the Nakhchivan City Prison, IRFS said. However, when Malahet Nasibova tried to report on the arrival of her husband in the prison a few hours after the verdict, Nasibov was not there.

Malahet Nasibova said she fears her husband may not have been delivered directly to prison and may be at risk for abuse by the police. She told CPJ she fears she will be arrested next. “The local government has made it impossible for us to work but whatever happens I am not leaving Nakhchivan,” she added.

Nasibova told CPJ she did not know how her husband’s personal e-mail to Aliyev made its way back to Ibrahimov’s hands. “The only way it could have gone back [to Ibrahimov] would be if someone in the president’s office sent it back,” she said.

The Nasibovs are the only independent journalists actively reporting from Nakhchivan, which is technically part of Azerbaijan although it is outside the country’s borders, according to RFE/RL. A third journalist, Hakimeldostu Mehdiyev of the opposition newspaper Yeni Musavat, was forced to flee Nakhchivan after local officials seized, beat, and imprisoned him for 15 days in September, in retaliation for his critical reporting on social issues and human rights abuses. Azerbaijan is the leading jailer of journalists in Europe and Central Asia and has the fifth-highest number of reporters behind bars worldwide. It is also one of the world’s top backsliders on press freedom, according to CPJ research.