April 2, 2012
His Excellency Ilham Aliyev
President of Azerbaijan
The President Palace
Baku, Istiglaliyyat Street, 19
Republic of Azerbaijan
Via facsimile: + 99 412 492 35 43, 492 06 25
Dear President Aliyev,
The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply disturbed by the recent wave of journalist imprisonments in Azerbaijan. With at least six journalists currently behind bars, Azerbaijan is now among the top 10 global jailers of the press, ahead of Uzbekistan and just behind Ethiopia, according to CPJ research. This crackdown comes in the run-up to Eurovision, the international song contest that Baku is hosting in May, which will gather journalists from more than 40 participating countries and fix the world’s eyes on Azerbaijan.
Your government has used significant resources to polish the country’s image ahead of the Eurovision contest and make it appealing to its international guests. However, we believe your efforts would be meaningless if the government continues to crack down on independent voices in the country. By implementing systematic reform, and urging the relevant authorities to investigate potential abuses of power, we believe you could stem the deterioration of press freedom in Azerbaijan.
According to CPJ research, your government is holding in custody editor Avaz Zeynally and journalist Aidyn Dzhaniyev of the independent daily Khural; reporter Anar Bayramli and his driver, Ramil Dadashev, from the Iranian broadcaster Sahar TV; editor Ramin Bayramov of the Islamic news website Islam-Azeri; and directors Zaur Guliyev and Vugar Gonagov of the regional TV channel Khayal. We are attaching a more detailed list of the imprisoned journalists to this letter.
The journalists have been imprisoned on fabricated, politicized charges–ranging from hooliganism and drug possession to incitement to mass disorder–that stemmed from their work, CPJ research shows. Two of them have already been convicted and are serving prison terms, while the others are jailed pending a trial, according to CPJ sources.
President Aliyev, we call on you to exercise the high authority of your office and instruct the relevant authorities to investigate the cases of these journalists who languish in jail simply because of their critical reporting. We urge you to uphold your declared commitment to international press freedom standards and ensure the immediate and unconditional release of these journalists.
Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter. We await your reply.
- Aidyn Dzhaniyev, a reporter for the independent daily Khural, was imprisoned in September and sentenced to three years in jail on hooliganism charges after clerics in Lenkoran, a city in southern Azerbaijan, accused him of breaking a mosque window and insulting a woman, news reports said. The journalist denied the accusations. An independent investigation by local journalists, cited by the independent Azerbaijani news agency Turan, concluded that Dzhaniyev’s charges stemmed from his reporting on authorities’ alleged involvement in drug trafficking in Lenkoran.
- After his appeal was denied, Dzhaniyev requested a Supreme Court review of the case, which is pending, Emin Huseynov, director of the Baku-based Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS) told CPJ.
- Avaz Zeynally, editor of Khural, was sentenced to three months in jail on extortion charges in October, and in January, his term was extended for another three months, according to news reports. The charges against him stemmed from a criminal claim filed by a parliament member that alleged the journalist tried to extort money from her. Zeynally denied the accusations and said the official tried to bribe him in exchange for positive press coverage. The woman left the country after filing the complaint against Zeynally and could not be reached for comment by local journalists. Her words remain the sole evidence against the editor, who awaits trial in Baku and faces up to 12 years in jail if convicted.
- Authorities imprisoned Ramin Bayramov, a reporter for the Islamic news website Islam-Azeri, last August and convicted him in March on separate counts of illegal possession of drugs and weapons, the independent regional news website Kavkazsky Uzel reported. Bayramov denied the accusations in court, and said he was prosecuted in retaliation for his journalism, Kavkazsky Uzel said. Islam-Azeri has criticized the government’s repression of independent religious practitioners in Azerbaijan. Although authorities initially charged Bayramov with activities hostile to the country and “incitement to mass disorder,” they failed to prove the charges and amended them to drugs and weapons possession.
- Although the journalist told the Baku court repeatedly that the drugs and weapons were planted in his garage, he was sentenced to 18 months in jail on March 7, Kavkazsky Uzel reported.
- Baku police detained Anar Bayramli, a reporter for the Iranian broadcaster Sahar TV, on February 22 after questioning him about his activities at work, press freedom groups reported. The police said they found heroin in the journalist’s jacket, which was hanging in the station while he was being interrogated, Reuters reported. IRFS’ Huseynov told CPJ that police had repeatedly intimidated the journalist, summoning him for regular “conversations” during which they pressured him to stop his reporting on human rights abuses in Azerbaijan and quit the Iranian broadcaster.
- Bayramli’s driver, Ramil Dadashev, was jailed on similar charges the same day. Both men face up to three years in prison if convicted.
- Authorities arrested Zaur Guliyev and Vugar Gonagov, directors of the regional TV channel Khayal, on March 13 and gave them two-month-long pretrial detention terms on March 22. Both journalists were charged with organizing mass disorder, and Guliyev was additionally charged with abuse of office, Kavkazsky Uzel reported. They were accused of uploading a YouTube video that showed a local governor making insulting comments to residents. The comments sparked protests and unrest in the town in early March, and resulted in his ouster, according to news reports. Authorities blamed the journalists for causing “mass unrest” by uploading the video, and jailed them.
- Guliyev and Gonagov were being held in a detention facility and were allowed to meet their lawyer only once, according to Huseynov. On Friday, after meeting with investigators, Gonagov suddenly requested a state-appointed lawyer instead of an independent one, according to IRFS.
- If convicted, Gonagov faces up to three years in jail, while Guliyev could be imprisoned for up to 10 years.