Azerbaijan should comply with European Court ruling

New York, April 23, 2010—Azerbaijani authorities must comply with the European Court of Human Rights’ decision ordering the immediate release of imprisoned editor Eynulla Fatullayev, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Fatullayev, a 2009 recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award, has been jailed for three years on fabricated charges.

The Strasbourg-based European Court ruled that Azerbaijan had violated Fatullayev’s rights to freedom of expression and fair trial, declared his imprisonment illegal, and ordered that he be freed and paid 25,000 euros (US$33,400) in compensation. The decision, dated March 25, was made public by the court on Thursday. Isakhan Ashurov, a lawyer for Fatullayev, told CPJ that the payment of the compensation may take up to six months, but Fatullayev’s release must be immediate. Ashurov said he is preparing to apply to Azerbaijan’s Supreme Court to implement the European Court’s decision.

“This is an important first step toward justice for Eynulla Fatullayev,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “As a party to the European Convention on Human Rights, Azerbaijan must now release Fatullayev immediately.”

The European Court decision said Azerbaijan had violated three articles of the European Convention on Human Rights: Article 6.1 concerning right to a fair trial, Article 6.2 regarding presumption of innocence, and Article 10 concerning right to freedom of expression. Azerbaijan signed the European Convention on Human Rights in January 2001 and ratified it in April 2002. As a signatory, Azerbaijan is bound to comply with the rulings of the European Court.

Even as the decision was being publicized, however, Azerbaijan’s representative to the European Court signaled that Baku might defy the court’s decision. “The European Court cannot take upon itself the roles of judicial, administrative, and other organs of the state-respondent,” Chingiz Askerov told the Azerbaijani news agency Trend.

If Azerbaijan fails to comply with the ruling, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe can impose penalties ranging from fines to expulsion from the council.

The Azerbaijani government’s persecution of Fatullayev began shortly after he published an in-depth examination of the unsolved 2005 killing of his colleague Elmar Huseynov. Fatullayev’s piece alleged that the murder was ordered by high-ranking officials in Baku and carried out by a criminal group.

In April 2007, a month after the piece ran, a Baku district court convicted Fatullayev of defaming the entire Azerbaijani population in an Internet posting that was falsely attributed to him. The court sentenced him to a 30-month term. With Fatullayev jailed, authorities evicted his two independent 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. Both papers soon stopped publishing.

More trumped-up charges followed. In October 2007, a judge in the Azerbaijani Court of Serious Crimes found Fatullayev guilty of terrorism, incitement to ethnic hatred, and tax evasion. Fatullayev’s sentences were consolidated, and he was ordered to serve eight years and six months in prison in all. The terrorism and incitement charges stemmed from a Realny Azerbaijan commentary, which criticized President Ilham Aliyev’s foreign policy regarding Iran. The tax evasion charge alleged that Fatullayev had concealed income from his two publications, a charge nearly impossible for the jailed Fatullayev to dispute with his newspapers by then shuttered.

The Supreme Court denied Fatullayev’s appeal in June 2008, ending domestic legal avenues. Fatullayev then appealed to the European Court, which began reviewing his case in September 2008.

The European Court deliberations on Fatullayev’s case—which included the defamation, terrorism, incitement, and tax evasion charges—were nearing an end when authorities filed a new indictment against the embattled editor. On December 30, 2009, he was charged with drug possession after prison guards allegedly found heroin in his cell. On New Year’s Eve, a Baku district court judge ordered the editor be tried on the fresh charge, following a late-night hearing that lasted just minutes. Fatullayev denied the charge, saying prison guards planted the drugs in his clothes while he was taking a shower.

Based on Fatullayev’s account and authorities’ longstanding persecution of the editor, CPJ has concluded that the drug charge was fabricated. Fatullayev is being held without access to his family or other visitors, Ashurov told CPJ. The journalist is scheduled to be interrogated again on April 26, the lawyer said.