Court slams Fatullayev with another prison sentence

New York, July 6, 2010—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns today’s decision by Azerbaijan’s Garadagh District Court in Baku to sentence imprisoned independent editor Eynulla Fatullayev to two and a half years in a strict-regime prison after finding him guilty of drug possession. Fatullayev, a 2009 recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award, has already served more than three years of an eight and a half year term on a series of fabricated charges, including terrorism.

Judge Ismail Khalilov announced the verdict against Fatullayev in a court full of international observers. Despite the fact that the editor had already served six months in a pretrial isolation unit since late December, Khalilov announced that Fatullayev’s new term will begin in full starting today, the journalist’s father, Emin Fatullayev, told CPJ.

For a fourth consecutive month, Baku has ignored a binding ruling of the European Court of Human Rights, which ordered Fatullayev’s immediate release in March. The Strasbourg-based 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.

As a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, Azerbaijan is bound to comply with the rulings of the European Court. If it fails to comply, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe can impose penalties ranging from fines to expulsion from the council.

“We are outraged at today’s verdict against Eynulla Fatullayev and call on the Baku Appellate Court to overturn it promptly,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “Azerbaijan must drop this absurd new sentence and annul the old case against our colleague or face sanctions.”

Just as the European Court’s deliberations on Fatullayev’s case—which included defamation, terrorism, incitement, and tax evasion charges—were nearing an end, authorities filed a new indictment against him. 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 said 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. In January, the editor was moved from the prison colony, where he has been serving his longer term, to a solitary detention unit, where he remains, the editor’s father told CPJ today.

If not overturned on appeal, the new verdict will result in Fatullayev’s move to a strict-security prison notorious for harsh conditions and a record of inmate abuse.

Before Khalilov pronounced Fatullayev guilty today, the editor was given the chance to speak. He told the court he had received warnings to stop his journalism before he was first arrested in April 2007, while he was editing the now-defunct Realny Azerbaijan: “One top official told me that my newspaper irritates the head of state because it is not only critical but also popular,” the Azerbaijani service of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty quoted Fatullayev as saying. He said he is not expecting authorities to release him because they do not want him to continue working as a journalist. But Fatullayev went on to pledge that if released he would “produce an even more popular newspaper than I used to,” RFE/RL reported.