Azerbaijan continues press crackdown with jail term and arrest extension

New York, January 29, 2015–The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on Azerbaijani authorities to end their crackdown on the press after a five-year sentence was handed to reporter Seymur Hazi, according to news reports. The pre-trial detention of investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova was also extended this week, news reports said.

Despite Ali Hasanov, a presidential administration official, telling the press in December “[In] Azerbaijan no journalist is being arrested or will be subject to arrest in connection to their work, opinion, or political views,” the country remains the leading jailer of journalists in Europe and Central Asia, with nine in prison on December 1, when CPJ conducted its annual prison census.

Since that date two journalists have been released, according to local press reports, but Ismayilova, an award-winning reporter and anchor for the Azerbaijani service of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was arrested and has been held by police since December 5, making the number of jailed journalists eight, according to CPJ research.

“Authorities in Azerbaijan claim that no reporters are jailed for their work, but we disagree. The country is now the leading jailer of journalists in the region,” said Muzaffar Suleymanov, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia research associate. “We urge President Ilham Aliyev to reverse repressive policies against critics, and release Seymur Hazi, Khadija Ismayilova, and other imprisoned journalists.”

Hazi, a reporter for opposition newspaper Azadliq and host for the paper’s online TV program “Azerbaijan Saati” (Azerbaijani Hour), was convicted by Absheron District Court on Thursday of aggravated hooliganism and sentenced to five years in prison, according to regional and international news reports. Hazi and his lawyers said they would appeal the verdict, independent regional website Kavkazsky Uzel reported.

Hazi was arrested on August 29 for allegedly beating a man named Magerram Hasanov at a bus stop, Kavkazsky Uzel reported. In court, Hazi admitted having a scuffle with him, but claimed Hasanov started the attack. The journalist’s lawyer said in court that he believed the altercation was orchestrated by authorities because police arrived moments after it started, according to news reports. The lawyer added in court that he believed Hazi had been targeted for his reporting, reports said.

According to Kavkazsky Uzel, Hazi was kept in jail after his pretrial detention term expired, and testimony from witnesses of police procedure, who said they did not see how the crime scene was examined and signed statements only because police asked them to, was ignored, the news website reported. Hasanov was sentenced to six months in jail on a lesser charge of hooliganism, reports said.

In a separate case, a district court on Tuesday ordered an extension of Ismayilova’s pretrial detention, Reuters reported. Ismayilova, known for reporting on government corruption and human rights abuses, was jailed after a man filed a complaint alleging that she had urged him to commit suicide.

Ismayilova denied the charge, according to news reports. The charge was condemned by CPJ and other human rights and press freedom groups as a way to silence critical voices. CPJ has documented a pattern in which Azerbaijani authorities file trumped up charges against critical journalists.

Authorities have repeatedly targeted Ismayilova with travel bans, smear campaigns, and a criminal prosecution on libel charges. In an article published in the local press days before her arrest, Ramiz Mehdiyev, head of the presidential administration, accused Ismayilova of treason and espionage, according to news reports. After Ismayilova was jailed, authorities raided the radio station’s Baku bureau, detained and interrogated its staff, confiscated reporting and financial equipment, and sealed the newsroom, reports said.

CPJ has repeatedly urged Azerbaijani authorities to reverse their escalating repression of critical journalists, press freedom groups, and human rights activists whose reporting is at odds with official views.