In Azerbaijan, reporter convicted on drug charges

Moscow, June 12, 2012–CPJ condemns Monday’s conviction of a journalist in Azerbaijan who has been held by police since February on trumped-up charges.

The Binagadinsky District Court in Baku convicted Anar Bayramli, a correspondent for the Iranian broadcaster Sahar TV, for drug possession and sentenced him to two years in prison, the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS) reported. Sahar TV broadcasts in a number of languages, including Azeri, and often carries programs critical of Azerbaijan’s government policies. Bayramli was imprisoned in February after police said that during an earlier interrogation, they had found heroin in his jacket, which had been hanging in the station the whole time, Reuters reported.

Police repeatedly questioned Bayramli about his work for Sahar TV prior to his arrest, according to the regional website Kavkazsky Uzel. Emin Husyenov, the director of IRFS, told CPJ that police had tried to intimidate Bayramli, summoning him for regular “conversations” and pressuring him to quit working for the Iranian broadcaster.

Bayramli denied the drug charges in court and said he was being persecuted for his journalistic activity–in particular, his critical reporting on human rights abuses and the violation of religious freedoms in Azerbaijan. “If Azerbaijan had an independent court, it would certainly release me,” he told the court. “But since courts in our country are an appendage of the state, I don’t expect a fair verdict.”

Bayramli was also accused of resisting arrest, Kavkazsky Uzel reported. Bayramli’s lawyers said they would appeal the sentence, citing procedural violations and falsified evidence in the case, including conflicting testimony by witnesses for the prosecution, according to IRFS.

“The conviction and imprisonment of Anar Bayramli is yet another example of Azerbaijani authorities’ relentless crackdown on independent reporting and freedom of the press,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “Bayramli must be released at once, along with the six other journalists and media workers held behind bars on trumped-up charges in Azerbaijan.”

Silencing government critics by planting drugs on them is a favored method of authorities in Azerbaijan. Two high-profile journalists, Eynulla Fatullayev, CPJ International Press Freedom Awardee, and Sakit Zakhidov, a reporter for the daily pro-opposition newspaper Azadlyg, have both served prison terms on trumped-up drug charges.

Bayramli is one of seven journalists and media workers currently in jail for their work in Azerbaijan. In the run-up to the Eurovision Song Contest, which Baku hosted this year, CPJ called on authorities to release all jailed journalists, but Azerbaijan continued to insist that it was not violating its international press freedom commitments. In Geneva, CPJ called on Eurovision Song Contest organizers, the European Broadcasting Union, to engage with Baku on press freedom and urge meaningful reforms.