An Azeri soldier and police officer talk in Kalbajar district, Azerbaijan, on December 21, 2020. Azerbaijani journalist Vugar Mammadov was recently sentenced to 30 days in jail over an interview. (Reuters/Aziz Karimov)

Azerbaijani journalist Vugar Mammadov sentenced to 30 days in jail over interview

Stockholm, July 28, 2023 – Azerbaijani authorities should release journalist Vugar Mammadov and stop retaliating against journalists for reporting on issues in the public interest, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Friday.

On Monday, July 24, the Narimanov District Court in the capital, Baku, sentenced Mammadov, chief editor of independent news outlet Hurriyyet, to 30 days in jail for disseminating prohibited information about the military, according to news reports and the journalist’s lawyer, Bahruz Bayramov, who spoke to CPJ by messaging app.

The court verdict, viewed by CPJ, referred to at least three interviews by Mammadov with former Colonel Elnur Mammadov, most recently on July 19, in which the ex-soldier criticized the state of the country’s military and accused Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov of poor management and corruption. Elnur Mammadov, who is not related to the journalist, was also jailed for 30 days on the same charges.

“The jailing of journalist Vugar Mammadov in reprisal for broadcasting critical views about Azerbaijani military officials is totally unacceptable and should be immediately reversed,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Authorities must abide by their international free speech commitments and stop retaliating against journalists for simply doing their jobs.”

Bayramov said that Mammadov, who was taken into custody from the courtroom, plans to appeal the verdict. He said no prohibited information – which under Azerbaijani law can include state secrets alongside other categories of information – was disseminated during the interviews and Mammadov was being punished for airing his guest’s critical views.

Media lawyer Khaled Aghaly told CPJ by messaging app that journalists can be prosecuted under Azerbaijani law for the statements of their interviewees, but he believed authorities’ goal in this case was to “intimidate journalists and ordinary people from expressing criticism.”

Elnur Mammadov is well-known for his criticism of Defense Ministry officials, which previously led to a six-month jail sentence in October 2022, media reports stated.

According to Hurriyyet, officers from the prosecutor-general’s office summoned Vugar Mammadov on Monday, questioned him, and took him to court. Authorities did not inform the journalist’s colleagues or family of his whereabouts for several hours and he was not allowed to choose his own lawyer, Hurriyyet staff told local and regional media.

The court ruling said that Mammadov had “systematically, consistently and continuously” discussed the state of the armed forces and thereby “spread prohibited information about the country’s weakened defense capability.” Neither the verdict nor a statement by the prosecutor-general contained any further details about the alleged prohibited information.

CPJ emailed the Prosecutor-General’s Office and the Ministry of Justice of Azerbaijan for comment but did not receive any replies.

At least two journalists, Abid Gafarov and Polad Aslanov, were imprisoned in Azerbaijan at the time of CPJ’s December 1, 2022, prison census.