Two Azeri journalists imprisoned, a third sentenced

New York, October 9, 2009—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the prison sentences given to journalists at the weekly newspaper Nota on defamation charges on Thursday.

Nota Editor-in-Chief Sardar Alibeili and reporter Faramaz Novruzoglu (also known as Faramaz Allahverdiyev) were given three-month prison terms, and staffer Ramiz Tagiyev was conditionally sentenced to six months of “corrective labor,” according to press reports and CPJ sources.

On Thursday, the Baku Court of Appeals upheld the July 22 verdict of the lower-instance Nasimi District Court, which pronounced the three journalists guilty of insulting Tahmasib Novruzov, the chairman of the local pro-government union Azadlyg Harakatchilari (Freedom Movemenent), in six Nota articles. The articles, published in February and March, accused the union and its chair of serving as a government mouthpiece, according to CPJ sources. Novruzov had called on the newspaper to publish an apology, but, instead, Nota ran a sarcastic piece in April, prompting the union leader to press criminal charges.

Alibeili and Novruzoglu were taken to prison right after the verdict was read on Thursday; Tagiyev must surrender a portion of his income to the state in the next six months, Emin Huseynov, director of the Baku-based Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety told CPJ.

“Azerbaijan has reclaimed its appalling position as the leading jailer of journalists in the region,” said CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova. “Seven of our colleagues are now behind bars simply for expressing their opinion or covering the news. Authorities should immediately release all of them, decriminalize libel provisions, and allow the press to do its job without fear of reprisal.”

This is not the first time Novruzoglu and Alibeili have been sentenced for defamation. In January 2007, Novruzoglu was given a two-year prison term for allegedly defaming Interior Minister Ramil Usubov in a series of articles in Nota Bene (the former name of Nota) articles; Alibeili was given 18 months’ of corrective labor in the same case. Novruzoglu’s health severely deteriorated in jail by September 2007 and, after a barrage of domestic and international protests, he was released on a presidential pardon in December of that year, along with several other journalists.

CPJ will honor another imprisoned Azerbaijani journalist, Eynulla Fatullayev, at its awards dinner on November 24.

“At our awards ceremony we will not only call for Fatullayev’s release but we will highlight the plight of all our imprisoned colleagues,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We hope that authorities in Azerbaijan will recognize the immense damage their repressive policies are doing to their international reputation, and will take steps to remedy the situation.”