Azerbaijan jails reporter on espionage charges

New York, April 21, 2014–A court in Baku today ordered journalist Rauf Mirkadyrov, Turkey correspondent for the independent Azerbaijani newspaper Zerkalo, to jail for three months pending trial on espionage charges after he was deported from Turkey, news reports said

News reports said the journalist and commentator Mirkadyrov had reported from Turkey for the past three years, and had often criticized both Turkish and Azeri authorities for human rights abuses. In addition to reporting for Zerkalo, news reports said, Mirkadyrov was involved in nongovernmental projects on improving dialogue between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which have not had diplomatic relations since the early 1990s, due to a dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

According to CPJ research, Mirkadyrov is the ninth journalist behind bars in Azerbaijan. The latest jailing comes just before Azerbaijan is to assume in mid-May rotating chairmanship of the Council of Europe, the Strasbourg-based intergovernmental human rights body. The 47 members of the council “have signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights, a treaty designed to protect human rights, democracy and the rule of law,” according to its website.

“As if deportation is not enough, Rauf Mirkadyrov is accused of being a spy and jailed. We call on Azerbaijani authorities to drop these trumped-up charges and stop abusing the law to silence independent reporting on the country,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “Azerbaijan is quickly becoming one of the leading jailers of journalists in the Eurasia region.”

According to regional and international press reports, Mirkadyrov was detained on treason charges by the Azerbaijani national security service, the MNB, upon his arrival from Ankara to Baku on Saturday. Today, the journalist was brought before the Nasimi District Court in Baku, where the charges were narrowed to espionage for Armenia, the independent regional news website Kavkazsky Uzel reported.

The independent news website Contact reported, citing the Azerbaijani prosecutor-general’s office, that the charges against Mirkadyrov stem from his past trips to Armenia, Georgia, as well as his time in Turkey, during which he allegedly met with Armenian security services and handed them information of a political and military nature, including state secrets. Mirkadyrov has denied all the accusations, saying they are politically motivated and in retaliation for his work; he faces up to a life term in jail if convicted, Kavkazsky Uzel reported.

Citing Mirkadyrov’s wife, Adelya Babakhanova, Kavkazsky Uzel said that on Friday Turkish police in Ankara detained the entire family on accusation of having expired travel documents. The journalist and his wife told the police that their immigration status would only expire at the end of the year. Mirkadyrov was deported to Azerbaijan; it is unclear whether the journalist’s family remained in Turkey or traveled with him.

Press freedom conditions in Azerbaijan have been on a steady decline in recent years, CPJ research shows. Despite their declared commitments to uphold press freedom, as well as the obligations before the Council of Europe, Azerbaijani authorities have jailed and harassed critics, adopted laws restricting the press, and imposed draconian restrictions on nongovernmental organizations.