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Azerbaijan1 October 2004

Parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe alerted over press freedom violations

Reporters Without Borders has called on the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) to firmly condemn Azerbaijan for tolerating escalating press freedom violations.

PACE will at its autumn session on 5 October examine to what extent Azerbaijan has fulfilled its commitments to the Council of Europe, one of which is guaranteeing press freedom.

In its 20 September report on the working of the country’s democratic institutions, PACE pointed out that journalists linked to the opposition have suffered a steep deterioration in their working conditions in the past year.

"We urge PACE to strongly condemn the inertia of the Azerbaijan authorities in the face of press freedom violations," said Reporters Without Borders, in a letter to the assembly president Peter Schieder.

"Those who physically attacked journalists during the disturbances that followed the October 2003 presidential elections must be punished as must those who attacked two opposition journalists in July 2004,""said the organisation.

"The authorities must condemn these actions and do everything possible to put an end to the climate of impunity that has taken hold over the past year," it added.

"Articles 147.2 and 148 of the criminal code providing for jail terms for defamation and insult, should be repealed. The fear of being sent to prison or suffering swingeing fines pushes journalists into a generalised self-censorship that is very damaging to press freedom".

"We also call for the release of Rauf Arifoglu, editor of the leading opposition daily, Yeni Musavat, and vice-president of the opposition Musavat party, who has been held in custody without justification for one year," it concluded.

Nearly 100 journalists were victims of physical assault in 2003. More than 50 were attacked covering violent clashes between the security forces and demonstrators on 15 and 16 October 2003, the day after presidential elections.

Two opposition journalists were attacked in July 2004. Four thugs abducted and beat Aydin Gouliev, editor of the opposition daily Baki Khaber on 17 July. His assailants accused him of "not serving his country and Islam" and warned him to stop all journalistic work. Eynulla Fatullayev of the opposition weekly Monitor was brutally beaten about the head in a Baku street on 26 July. He has written many articles highly critical of the government.

Although the new government of Ilham Aliev promised to find and punish those who carried out the attacks, the investigation has gone nowhere.

Laws on defamation and insult setting out prison terms were also behind numerous press freedom violations.

A Baku court on 25 February 2004 sentenced Rovshan Kebirli, editor of the daily Mukhalifat, and Yusif Gambar, who wrote the offending article, to two years in prison suspended for defaming the Taekwondo national federation. The article that appeared on 18 October 2003 accused members of the federation of joining security forces in breaking up demonstrations in Baku contesting the results of the 15 October presidential elections.

On 30 August, Aydin Gouliev, editor of the opposition daily Baki Khaber, was sentenced to one year in prison suspended for defamation and insult to Jalal Aliev, the head of state’s uncle.

Elsewhere, swingeing fines handed down to the media put publications at risk of being forced out of business. Opposition daily Yeni Musavat is threatened with closure after picking up fines totalling almost 25,000 euros in the course of six trials.

Elmar Huseynov, founder and editor of opposition weekly Monitor, and the journalist Tarlan Mamedzade, who wrote an article in March criticising the behaviour of deputies, were on 22 September fined around 6,500 euros for "insulting the name and dignity" of a deputy in the ruling party, Siyavush Novruzov.

Monitor appealed against the sentence and now faces a second defamation case, laid by another member of parliament. Zalimkhan Yagub, who was not named in a 3 July article strongly criticising deputies, called for the weekly to be closed, the editor and the journalist who wrote the article, Eynulla Fatullayev, to be jailed as well as fined 25,000 euros.

Fatullayev was also arrested at Baku airport on 23 September on his way to Moscow. Police cited an order from the prosecutor-general’s office banning the journalist from leaving the country. He was released and allowed to take his Moscow flight a few hours later. The Russian-language Monitor is known for its fiercely critical stance towards Azeri government policy.

Finally, Rauf Arifoglu, editor of the leading opposition daily, Yeni Musavat, and vice-president of the opposition party Musavat, has been imprisoned in Baku since 27 October 2003. His trial, and that of six other opposition leaders, opened on 7 May 2004. He is accused of having organised rioting that shook the country after the contested 15 October 2003 presidential elections. He is accused of "disturbing the peace" and "refusal to comply". He faces seven years in prison.

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