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Azerbaijan22 November 2004

Rauf Arifoglu sentenced to five years in prison

Reporters Without Borders said it was "staggered by the extraordinary harshness" of a five-year prison sentence handed down by a court in Baku against Rauf Arifoglu, editor of the country’s leading opposition daily Yeni Musavat.

Arifoglu, who is also vice president of the opposition party Musavat, was sentenced for "disturbing public order" and "refusal to comply". He had been held in custody since 27 October 2003.

"The government of Ilham Aliev promised a fair and open trial, and that has not been the case," the worldwide press freedom organisation added.

A number of human rights organisations, as well as the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe have called for the release of Arifoglu who has spent almost a year in custody.

"It is now evident that the Azerbaijan authorities are not respecting their international commitments. Unless this sentence is overturned on appeal the country’s image will be seriously damaged," said Reporters Without Borders.

The trial of Arifoglu, along with that of six other opposition leaders opened on 7 May 2004. He was accused of organising rioting that shook the country after contested presidential elections on 15 October 2003. He was accused of "disturbing public order" and "refusal to comply". He risked a jail sentence of up to seven years.

His lawyer, Samed Panahov, had spoken out against irregularities in the trial and lack of evidence against his client. He said that the journalist’s state of health had deteriorated in prison - he was suffering from a stomach ulcer - after being on hunger strike for ten days.

Reporters Without Borders had been calling since October 2003 for Arifoglu to be bailed while awaiting the outcome of his trial. The OSCE did the same but also in vain. On the contrary, the prosecutor-general’s office several times extended Arifoglu’s period in custody.

President Ilham Aliyev pardoned 160 prisoners on 29 December, of whom one third were political detainees. The European Union presidency hailed this gesture but nevertheless expressed concern for those arrested following the 15-16 October disturbances. It called for them to be quickly and fairly tried or released.

At its autumn 2004 session, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe passed a resolution calling for the release or amnesty of the seven opposition leaders and of 33 other people charged in connection with the events of October 2003.




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