Authorities lodged a series of politically motivated criminal charges against Fatullayev, editor of the now-closed independent Russian-language weekly Realny Azerbaijan and the Azeri-language daily Gündalik Azarbaycan. The charges, which CPJ found to be fabricated, were filed after Fatullayev accused the government of a cover-up in the unsolved murder of his mentor, the editor Elmar Huseynov. In November 2009, CPJ honored Fatullayev with its International Press Freedom Award.
Authorities continued to hold Fatullayev in late year despite a March ruling by the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights, which ordered the journalist’s immediate release. The court found Azerbaijani authorities had violated Fatullayev’s rights to freedom of expression and fair trial. Azerbaijan appealed to the court’s Upper Chamber, which upheld the lower court in October. As a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, Azerbaijan is bound to comply with rulings issued by the European Court.
Fatullayev was first charged in March 2007, after he published an in-depth piece that accused Azerbaijani authorities of ignoring evidence in Huseynov’s murder and obstructing the investigation. Fatullayev was charged initially with defaming Azerbaijanis in an Internet comment that the journalist said had been falsely attributed to him; he was sentenced to 30 months in prison in April 2007. Six months later, Fatullayev’s sentence was extended to eight and a half years on several other trumped-up charges, including terrorism, incitement to ethnic hatred, and tax evasion. The terrorism and incitement charges stemmed from a Realny Azerbaijan commentary that sharply criticized President Ilham Aliyev’s foreign policy regarding Iran. Fatullayev denied concealing income as the tax evasion charge alleged.
Just as the European Court’s deliberations on Fatullayev’s case were nearing an end, Azerbaijani authorities filed a new indictment. On December 30, 2009, they charged the editor with drug possession after prison guards claimed to have found heroin in his cell. Fatullayev said guards had planted the drugs while he was taking a shower. In July, a Garadagh District Court judge sentenced Fatullayev to another two and a half years in prison, a punishment not covered by the European Court ruling.
In November, the Azerbaijani Supreme Court ruled that the country would comply with the European Court’s decision, but Fatullayev remained imprisoned in late year based on the drug conviction. The drug charge was widely seen as a means by which authorities could continue to hold Fatullayev regardless of the European Court’s ruling. Based on Fatullayev’s account and authorities’ longstanding persecution of the editor, CPJ concluded that the drug charge was without basis.