Journalists given suspended prison terms in Azerbaijan

New York, March 18, 2013–An appellate court in Azerbaijan should overturn the baseless convictions of two journalists charged with inciting mass disorder, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

The Khachmaz District Court in northeastern Azerbaijan on Friday convicted Vugar Gonagov, director of the regional TV channel Khayal, and Zaur Guliyev, Khayal TV’s chief editor, and handed them each a suspended three-year prison term, regional news reports said. The two men, who had been held in pretrial detention for more than a year, were released and said they would appeal the ruling, the independent news website Kavkazsky Uzel reported.

“We are relieved that Vugar Gonagov and Zaur Guliyev were set free, but they had committed no crime and should not have spent a single day in jail,” said Muzaffar Suleymanov, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia research associate. “Their cases illustrate why Azerbaijan is one of the world’s worst jailers of the press.”

Authorities imprisoned Gonagov and Guliyev on March 13, 2012, in the northeastern city of Quba, and accused them of publishing on YouTube a video of a regional governor making insulting comments about local residents at a government meeting. Soon after the video was discovered, local residents staged a protest rally, clashed with the police, and attacked a regional governor’s residence, Kavkazsky Uzel reported.

Gonagov and Guliyev denied publishing the video on YouTube, news reports said. They also said they had been mistreated in detention and denied access to their lawyer.

Azerbaijan holds at least seven other journalists in jail, making the country the seventh worst jailer of journalists in the world, CPJ research shows. Three journalists, Avaz Zeynally, Faramaz Novruzoglu, and Fuad Huseynov, have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms, and four others remain in pretrial detention.