The Georgia-Russia crisis in August diverted international attention from another strategically important Caucasus country–oil-rich Azerbaijan. The authoritarian president, Ilham Aliyev, gained a new term in a flawed October 15 vote. Aliyev, who effectively inherited the presidency from his father, Heydar, in 2003, defeated six virtual unknowns after top opposition parties boycotted the October vote to protest restrictive new amendments to the election law.
The amendments, passed by parliament in June, cut the campaign period nearly in half, to 75 days; eliminated free airtime on state television for opposition candidates; and provided the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party with dominant representation on election commissions. The amendments were part of a months-long campaign by Aliyev’s administration to marginalize dissent.
A prominent press freedom case set the tone for the year. In January, an appellate court in the capital, Baku, upheld the 2007 conviction of Eynulla Fatullayev, imprisoned editor of the now-shuttered independent Russian-language weekly Realny Azerbaijan and Azeri-language daily Gündalik Azarbaycan. The court let stand his conviction on defamation, incitement of ethnic hatred, terrorism, and tax evasion charges, along with a prison term of eight and a half years.
CPJ traveled to Baku to investigate the case and a series of other serious attacks on the Azerbaijani press. In a September special report, “Finding Elmar’s Killers,” CPJ’s Nina Ognianova found that the charges against Fatullayev were either unsupported or fabricated, and that the prosecution was retaliation for the editor’s in-depth reporting on the murder of his former colleague, Elmar Huseynov. Authorities have yet to solve the March 2005 contract-style murder of Huseynov.
In its report, CPJ found little to no evidence supporting the government’s claim that it is actively seeking two Georgian citizens as suspects in the Huseynov murder. Aliyev and other top officials have repeatedly said that Interpol, the international police agency, is responsible for tracking down the suspects. But the agency’s public database of wanted fugitives does not list either of the suspects identified by Azerbaijani officials. In a written statement, Interpol told CPJ that it does not comment on specific cases but noted that it issues notices for wanted fugitives, known as “red notices,” only after member countries provide “details of a valid arrest warrant.”
Assaults against the press have occurred with impunity. Azerbaijani authorities have yet to make a single arrest in at least eight serious attacks against journalists since 2005. While those responsible for these attacks remained at large, police and prosecutors proved efficient in one regard: They have jailed at least five independent and pro-opposition journalists for their work.
Genimet Zakhidov, editor of the pro-opposition weekly Azadlyg, was sentenced in March to four years in prison on fabricated charges of hooliganism and inflicting bodily harm. Zakhidov was arrested after a November 2007 confrontation in which a man and a woman accosted him on the street outside his Baku office building. Zakhidov told reporters that the woman had started screaming as if he had insulted her; a moment later, the man tried to attack him. With the help of passers-by, Zakhidov said, he was able to fend them off. But the two later filed a complaint with police, and the journalist was summoned for questioning three days later. A Baku district court judge convicted Zakhidov despite contradictory statements from prosecution witness and the absence of any documented injuries, Zakhidov’s lawyer, Elchin Sadygov, told CPJ. Eyewitnesses for the defense were barred from testifying, he said. Zakhidov–whose brother, Sakit, was jailed in 2006 for his journalism–was sentenced to the maximum penalty under the law.
Novruzali Mamedov, editor of Talyshi Sado (Voice of the Talysh), was convicted of treason and sentenced to 10 years in prison in a closed-door trial in June. A judge presiding in the Court for Grave Crimes in Baku read the verdict in the absence of Mamedov’s defense lawyer, relatives, and the press. Mamedov’s lawyer and colleagues said the charge was fabricated and led to the closing of the twice-monthly newspaper, which covered Azerbaijan’s ethnic Talysh minority. Hilal Mamedov, who led a group that advocated on behalf of the journalist, told CPJ that authorities accused the editor of accepting financial backing from Iran. The editor was also accused of encouraging ethnic differences by promoting the Talysh minority’s culture, language, and music, said Hilal Mamedov (no relation to the journalist).
Two editors with the pro-government daily Ideal were convicted of criminal defamation in connection with stories published in August that detailed an alleged prostitution ring. The Nasimi District Court in Baku sentenced Ali Hasanov, editor-in-chief, to six months in prison in November. Nazim Guliyev, another top editor, went into hiding after his conviction in October.
With five reporters and editors behind bars, Azerbaijan was the second-leading jailer of journalists in Europe and Central Asia. Only Uzbekistan jailed more.
The secretive Aliyev administration sought to keep imprisoned journalists isolated and their cases out of the public eye. Officials effectively rebuffed CPJ’s multiple requests to visit Fatullayev and the Zakhidovs in prison in May, giving a series of evasive responses. In one instance, they said the request could not be processed because a government fax machine was out of paper. Other press freedom groups reported similar experiences in trying to meet with the imprisoned journalists.
Unpunished violence against journalists had a chilling effect on independent reporting. Journalists told CPJ that they saw no incentive to cover sensitive subjects–the most dangerous of which is reporting on the Aliyev family–when colleagues have been beaten, harassed, or jailed after taking that risk. One of the most extreme cases of harassment involved Azadlyg reporter Agil Khalil.
Khalil’s ordeal started on February 22, when two officers with the National Security Ministry approached him while he was taking pictures in the Baku neighborhood known as the Olive Gardens. The reporter said the men beat him, took his press identification, broke his finger, and tried to strangle him with his own camera. Khalil reported the attack to Baku police the same day and gave them photographs of the two men as well as video footage of the beating that a passer-by had recorded on a mobile phone, according to the journalist’s lawyer. Witnesses also gave statements describing the attack. The prosecutor general’s office issued a statement a month later, saying that the security officers did not want to be photographed and, therefore, had tried to take Khalil’s camera. The prosecutor’s office asserted that Khalil had intentionally fallen on his back and had faked his injuries. The case was closed without action.
Khalil was attacked three more times within the next four months. On March 13, he was hospitalized after being stabbed in the abdomen. In an astonishing series of events on May 7, unidentified assailants tried to push Khalil onto tracks at a Baku train station and, later, kidnap him near his house. Khalil reported the attacks to Azerbaijani authorities, and press freedom groups documented the cases in detail. After that, Khalil became the subject of a smear campaign on government-controlled television. On April 7, Azerbaijani state broadcaster AzTV aired interviews with alleged assailant Sergei Strekalin, who “confessed” that he had stabbed Khalil out of jealousy. Strekalin claimed the two men had been lovers. Prosecutors declared the case solved and scheduled a court hearing for June.
In an extensive interview with CPJ, Khalil said Strekalin was not the man who had attacked him. Not only was he not involved in an affair with Strekalin, Khalil said, the two had never met. Khalil cited numerous other discrepancies–most notably Strekalin’s assertion that he had stabbed the journalist several times. Khalil suffered a single knife wound.
While purporting to prosecute the case, authorities infringed on Khalil’s rights, barring him from traveling outside the country on two separate occasions in May. Azerbaijani law does not bar victims in criminal cases from traveling abroad, the journalist’s lawyer noted. Khalil did testify, telling the court that he did not know Strekalin and that the defendant was not the assailant. Strekalin, a convicted felon who was a suspect in another criminal case, was eventually convicted in the stabbing and given an 18-month term.
The administration was defiant in the face of international criticism of its press freedom record. “Azerbaijan has done enough work to attain political pluralism, freedom of expression and of the press,” Ali Hasanov, head of the president’s public affairs office, told local reporters in response to questions raised by CPJ and others. (Hasanov is no relation to the Ideal editor.) “We do not accept pretenses to the contrary. We do not accept reports, no matter which international organization is the author.”
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