In meeting, delegation presses for Fatullayev’s freedom

Washington, January 20, 2010—A delegation from the Committee to Protect Journalists met today with Azerbaijani Charge d’Affaires Khazar Ibrahim at the Azerbaijani Embassy to deliver a letter carrying the names of more than 500 international journalists petitioning for the immediate release of imprisoned editor Eynulla Fatullayev, a 2009 recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award. The petitioners signed the call for Fatullayev’s release during a November ceremony honoring the editor for his courageous journalism.

CPJ’s letter was delivered by CPJ board members Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Clarence Page, and Andrew Alexander; Executive Director Joel Simon; Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova, and Washington Representative Frank Smyth. Addressed to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, the letter urges the president to open a new page in his government’s policies toward the independent and opposition press by immediately releasing Fatullayev.

The delegation met with Charge d’Affaires Ibrahim for an hour. Ibrahim said Fatullayev had been provided due process and that the government would respect the court decisions in the case. But Ibrahim also promised that CPJ’s letter would be delivered to President Aliyev, and he invited a continued dialogue with CPJ.

CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said after the meeting: “President Aliyev should demonstrate his government’s tolerance to scrutiny and criticism, and there is no louder or clearer message toward that end than ordering the release of our unjustly imprisoned colleague, Eynulla Fatullayev. No just and democratic society can be built without a vibrant, free press.”

Imprisoned since April 2007, Fatullayev is serving an eight-and-a-half-year term on trumped-up charges of defamation, incitement of ethnic hatred, terrorism, and tax evasion. CPJ research shows that the charges were not based on factual evidence and were pursued, instead, to retaliate against Fatullayev and silence his critical journalism. The persecution of Fatullayev began after Fatullayev wrote an article about the unsolved 2005 murder of fellow Azerbaijani editor Elmar Huseynov. Fatullayev’s piece accused Azerbaijani authorities of deliberately obstructing the investigation into Huseynov’s killing and ignoring evidence that could lead to the masterminds.

After exhausting domestic appeals, Fatullayev has sought redress before the Strasbourg, France-based European Court of Human Rights.

In a disturbing new development, authorities with the Azerbaijani Penitentiary Service searched Fatullayev’s cell on December 29, 2009, and claimed to have found 0.22 grams of heroin. Fatullayev, who was charged with drug possession and moved into isolation, has denied possessing any drugs. Based on Fatullayev’s account, as relayed by his attorney, and based on the government’s long record of persecuting the editor, CPJ believes this new drug charge to be fabricated. The journalist’s supporters say they believe the new charge was intended to ensure Fatullayev would remain in jail no matter what the European Court finds.

Here is the full text of CPJ’s letter. Below is a chronology of Fatullayev’s case:

  • On March 2, 2005, Elmar Huseynov, editor of the independent magazine Monitor, was murdered. Fatullayev, his protégé, pledged to investigate the murder of his boss. The government identified two Georgian citizens as the suspected killers and said that it was seeking to apprehend them. The suspects were neither extradited to Azerbaijan nor tried in Georgia.
  • Fatullayev traveled to Tbilisi with three other journalists in October 2006 to look for the suspects. In a press conference after his return, Fatullayev announced that he and his colleagues had met one of the suspected killers—ethnic Azeri Georgian citizen Teymuraz Aliyev. The four journalists told the press conference that Aliyev was living openly in Tbilisi, and showed a photo they had taken of him.
  • The Azerbaijani national security service (MNB) questioned the journalists about their trip, disputed the photo identification, and warned the journalists to stop looking into the murder. Fatullayev refused, giving gave interviews to local media about his research. In a November 17, 2006, interview with the independent daily Ekho, Fatullayev cast doubt on the authorities’ good faith in solving Huseynov’s murder. “Law enforcement structures are behaving quite dubiously,” he told Ekho. “As we uncover something, they try to cover up the tracks.”
  • On March 2, 2007, the second anniversary of Huseynov’s murder, Fatullayev published a first-person article, titled “Lead and Roses,” in his weekly newspaper Realny Azerbaijan. The piece accused Azerbaijani authorities of deliberately obstructing the investigation into Huseynov’s killing and ignoring evidence that could lead to the masterminds. The piece also claimed that the murder was masterminded by high-level officials in Baku and carried out by a criminal group.
  • Four days after the piece ran, on March 6, 2007, Fatullayev’s mother received an anonymous phone call. As a “wise woman,” the caller said, she should “talk sense” into her son or “we will send him to Elmar.” Fatullayev reported the threat to the police, but it was he who came under intense investigation.
  • In April 2007, a Baku district court judge convicted Fatullayev of defaming Azerbaijanis in an Internet posting falsely attributed to the journalist. The posting, published on several Web sites, said Azerbaijanis bore some responsibility for the 1992 killings of residents of the restive Nagorno-Karabakh region. Fatullayev was sentenced to a 30-month term and jailed immediately.
  • After Fatullayev was taken into custody, authorities proceeded to evict his two newspapers—the Russian-language weekly Realny Azerbaijan and the Azeri-language daily Gündalik Azarbaycan—from their Baku offices, citing purported fire safety and building code violations. The publications folded soon after.
  • More charges were filed against the jailed Fatullayev in the next six months. In October 2007, a judge in the Azerbaijani Court of Serious Crimes found him guilty of terrorism, incitement to ethnic hatred, and tax evasion. Fatullayev’s sentences were consolidated, and he was ordered to serve a total of eight years and six months in prison. The terrorism and incitement charges stemmed from a March 2007 commentary, critical of Azerbaijan’s foreign policy. The tax case was filed after Fatullayev was jailed and his papers ousted from their offices, making collecting records to mount a defense virtually impossible.
  • In June 2008, the Azerbaijani Supreme Court denied Fatullayev’s last appeal, exhausting all domestic appeal venues for the editor.
  • Fatullayev and his defense lawyer persuaded the European Court of Human Rights to review his case. In September 2008, the court began the reviewing material. Hearings are to be scheduled soon.
  • On November 24, 2009, CPJ honored Fatullayev with one of its International Press Freedom Awards. Hundreds of people who attended the ceremony signed a petition, calling on President Ilham Aliyev to release the journalist.
  • On December 29, guards in Baku’s Prison No. 12, where Fatullayev was being kept, claimed to have searched his cell and discovered 0.22 grams of heroin in a jacket. Fatullayev denied possessing the drug and said it was planted. On December 30, he was charged with drug possession. On New Year’s Eve, a Baku district court judge ordered the editor be tried on the new charge, following a late-night hearing that lasted just minutes. He was moved to an isolation facility to await his new trial.