Journalist Ikram Rahimov is serving a three-year prison sentence on charges of extortion in retaliation for his reporting. He has exhausted the appeals process in Azerbaijan.
Police detained Rahimov, chief editor of the news website Realliq, on October 26, 2018, the journalist’s brother, Emin Rahimov, told CPJ. The following day, a Baku district court judge charged Rahimov with extortion and ruled that he should remain in detention for two months pending investigation, the journalist’s lawyer, Elchin Sadygov, told CPJ.
Azerbaijan’s security service published a statement on its website on October 27, 2018, that said Rahimov’s arrest was based on "numerous complaints" from citizens. The statement alleged that Rahimov and his "subordinates" created Realliq and other "extortionist" websites to collect compromising information about individuals and threaten them with publishing "slanderous" articles.
Emin Rahimov said that earlier on the day of his brother’s arrest, the journalist published a Facebook post in which he said an unknown vehicle was following him.
Ikram Rahimov went to the Baku office of the independent news agency Turan, where he told the editor-in-chief, Mehman Aliyev, about the incident, Emin Rahimov said. As Ikram Rahimov was exiting the building, four plainclothes men detained him and took him to the security services’ Baku office, Emin Rahimov said.
The journalist’s brother told CPJ that he believed the charges were in retaliation for an editorial that Rahimov published on his website a few hours before the arrest. In the editorial–written as a letter to Ali Hasanov, a presidential adviser who oversees media–Realliq’s editor addressed several issues, including alleged corruption in the country’s Press Council, a government body.
He wrote that "thousands of manats [Azerbaijani currency] allocated by the government to mass media have not been spent as planned." The Azeri-language service of the U.S. Congress-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported that the head of the Press Council, Mushfiq Alaskarli, denied the allegations and called them "unfounded."
Azerbaijani authorities have previously targeted Rahimov for his journalism, according to CPJ research. He served a one-year prison sentence starting November 25, 2016, on defamation charges.
Emin Rahimov told CPJ that when he spoke with his detained brother on November 1, 2018, the journalist said he was innocent and being prosecuted for journalism.
On November 1, 2018, a Baku court of appeals denied Rahimov’s appeal to be released on bail, the regional online news site Kavkazsky Uzel reported. Before his trial, Rahimov remained in pre-trial detention center #1 in Baku, according to the independent Turan information agency and Meydan.tv.
At a June 7, 2019, preliminary hearing, the state prosecutor asked for a six-and-a-half-year prison sentence, Kavkazsky Uzel reported. On June 12, the Baku Court of Grave Crimes sentenced Rahimov to five and a half years in prison on charges of extortion under Azerbaijan’s criminal code 182.2.2, according to the lawyer, Sadygov, who spoke with CPJ, and Kavkazsky Uzel. The journalist’s lawyer said the sentence would be appealed.
On August 7, 2019, the appeals hearing began, according to local news website Gozetci, and the Baku appeals court convened on August 28, 2019 and September 18, 2019, to hear Rahimov’s case, Turan information agency reported. During the September 18, 2019 hearing, the court changed the charge to article 62 of the criminal code and found him guilty of extortion by threats, according to Turan, and thereby reduced Rahimov’s sentence from five years and six months to three years imprisonment, Kavkazsky Uzel reported.
Rahimov declared a hunger strike on August 7, 2019, to protest the charges, which lasted for almost 30 days, ending on September 5, 2019, according to news reports and Aliyev, who spoke with CPJ via messaging app.
Rahimov’s family told local and regional news outlets that following the hunger strike, he had health issues, including kidney and abdominal pain, and mobility problems. On August 30, 2019, Red Cross doctors visited Rahimov in detention, noted his deteriorating condition, and urged him to end the strike, Turan information agency reported.
Aliyev told CPJ that he believes the charges against the journalist are fabricated and in retaliation for Rahimov’s reporting. Although Rahimov has exhausted his appeals, he hoped for an early release, either based on amnesty, or on a law allowing for the release of prisoners who have served one-third of their sentence, according to Aliyev.
As of late 2020, Rahimov was being held in prison colony No. 10 in Baku, the capital, and was in good health, according to Aliyev, who spoke with CPJ on the phone and who said that he had recently communicated with Rahimov.
CPJ emailed a request for comment to Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, which oversees the country’s prison system, but did not receive a response.