Azerbaijani court orders editor jailed on defamation charge

New York, April 8, 2009–A district court in Baku has sentenced Asif Marzili, editor-in-chief of the independent weekly Tezadlar, to one year in prison on charges of defaming managers and professors of Azerbaijan International University, the Azeri Press Agency reported. Ruling on Tuesday, the court also handed down a six-month suspended corrective labor sentence to Tezadlar freelancer Zumrud Mammedova in the same case. 

In an unusual development, presidential spokesman Ali Hasanov told local journalists today that President Ilham Aliyev disapproved of the prison sentence given to Marzili. Aliyev, who met today with delegations from the European Union and the Council of Europe, believes disputes about press coverage should be settled in accordance with international practice, the spokesman told the Azeri Press Agency.

Imprisonment on defamation charges does not conform to international standards. With five other editors and reporters in jail, Azerbaijan is the world’s sixth worst jailer of journalists, CPJ research shows.

“We welcome President Aliyev’s statement on the case of Asif Marzili and call on Azerbaijani authorities to end the practice of criminal prosecution and imprisonment of journalists,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “We urge Azerbaijani courts to overturn Marzili and Mammedova’s convictions on appeal, and to release Marzili as soon as possible. We also call on authorities to release the five other journalists currently serving prison sentences in Azerbaijan on politically motivated charges.”

Elshad Abdullayev, rector of Azerbaijan International University, filed a complaint in January against Tezadlar and Mammedova, alleging defamation and insult, according to Emin Huseynov, director of the Baku-based Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety. Huseynov told CPJ that the complaint stemmed from a series of articles in August 2008 that alleged corruption at the university.

Huseynov said the court ruling came as a surprise for Marzili, who had informed him just before the court hearing that he and Abdullayev were about to settle the case.