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Azerbaijan10 July 2007

Appeal court upholds prison sentences for two journalists who criticised Islam

A Baku appeal court on 6 July upheld the prison sentences imposed on 4 May on Samir Sadagatoglu, the editor of the weekly Sanat, and Rafik Tagi, one of his journalists, for an article critical of Islam, entitled “Europe and Us,” that was published on 6 November 2006. Sadagatoglu was sentenced to four years in prison, and Tagi to three years.

“The appeal court’s ruling unfortunately confirms that free speech is permanently suppressed in Azerbaijan,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The law and the way it is implemented are both problematic. We hope the case will be referred to a higher court. In the meantime, the authorities must guarantee the safety of these two journalists, who are under a threat of death from a fatwa issued by Ayatollah Mohammed Fazel Lankarani in neighbouring Iran.”

Arrested on 15 November 2006, Sadagatoglu and Tagi have already spent nearly eight months in prison. They were sentenced under article 283.1 of the criminal code, which punishes “inciting racial, national and religious hatred.”

Long jail terms for journalists who criticised Islam in article

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Reporters Without Borders today condemned the prison sentences imposed yesterday on Samir Sadagatoglu, the editor of the weekly Sanat, and Rafik Tagi, one of his journalists, for an article critical of Islam, entitled “Europe and Us,” that was published on 6 November 2006. The court sentenced Sadagatoglu to four years in prison, and Tagi to three years.

“These disproportionate sentences highlight the degree to which free speech is under threat in Azerbaijan, and come just after President Ilham Aliev was added to our list of Press Freedom Predators,” Reporters Without Borders said. “We appeal to the authorities to show clemency and to free these two journalists, who have already been held for the past six months.”

The press freedom organisation continued: “While it is understandable that some members of the public may have been shocked by the article’s content and tone, the imposition of prison sentences and fatwas is outrageous. It should be remembered that these are not criminals but two journalists who were just expressing their views.”

Reporters Without Borders recalled a European Court of Human Rights ruling that: “Freedom of opinion is not just applicable to news and topics regarded as inoffensive or indifferent, but also for opinions that upset, shock or disturb.”

The organisation added that the trial took place in a climate of tension incompatible with the implementation of justice in a dispassionate and impartial manner. Religious radicals attended the hearings and threatened the defendants in court without being called to order by the judge.

Sadagatoglu and Tagi said they did not consider themselves guilty of any crime and intended to appeal.

The offending article argued that European values were superior to Asian ones, and that Islam was an expression of Asian despotism. Islam failed to take root in Europe because of the continent’s humanistic and universal values, it claimed. Some of Mohammed’s pronouncements were aggressive, unlike Jesus’s, the article said. It finally argued that Azerbaijan’s progress was due to the influence of European values, and not Asian ones.

Judge orders two Sanat journalists held for another two months

The detention of Rafiq Tagi, a journalist with the newspaper Sanat, and Samir Sadagatoglu, his editor, was extended for another two months yesterday by judge Gulnara Tagizade of the Nasimi regional court on the grounds that further investigation is needed.

Tagi and Sadagatoglu have been held since 15 November on a charge of “inciting racial, national and religious hatred” under article 283 of the criminal code because of a 6 November article by Tagi entitled “Europe and Us” which argued that European values were superior to those of the Middle East and Asia.

The article caused outrage not only among some Azerbaijanis but also in the neighbouring Islamic Republic of Iran. One of Iran’s leading ayatollah’s issued a fatwa on 25 November calling for the “apostate” Tagi and his editor to be killed.

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