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Azerbaijan3 July 2007

Court to hear appeal of two journalists imprisoned for libelling president’s uncle

Reporters Without Borders today urged the judicial authorities to reconsider the 30-month prison sentences imposed on journalists Yashar Agazadeh and Rovshan Kabirli of the daily Mukhalifat when their appeal hearing begins tomorrow.

Agazadeh has been on hunger strike in prison against their conviction on 20 May of libelling the president’s uncle, Djalal Aliev, in an article linking him to possible corruption.

“The laws must be amended as a matter of urgency so that journalists are no longer sentenced to jail terms that are out of all proportion to the offence,” the press freedom organisation said.

New crackdown on opposition media

Reporters Without Borders today strongly denounced a recent wave of restrictions and repression targeting Azerbaijan’s independent media and urged the authorities to restore press freedom.

It said it was “very concerned” about yesterday’s assertion by the head of President Ilham Aliev’s office, Ramiz Mehdiyev, that there were normal democratic freedoms in the country and said it hoped he would quickly change his attitude and take all steps to ensure freedom of expression. “It is unthinkable that such a senior official can publicly say this when everyday facts show that the media is under pressure.”

Ali Hasanov, another top Aliev aide, said while attending a conference on democracy in societies in transition yesterday that “we have an independent media and freedom of expression here. The opinion of some NGOs that there are pressures on the media in Azerbaijan is just an opinion.” He said the recent imprisonment of several journalists was justified and that growing international criticism of the government’s actions was groundless.

The offices of two opposition newspapers, the Russian-language Realny Azerbaijan and the Azeri-language Gundalik Azerbaijan, were shut down by the ministry of emergency situations on 20 May, officially because of security problems with the electrical system and building-evacuation procedure. But Uzeyir Jafarov, editor of Realny Azebaijan, said it was really because of what the papers had printed. Their offices were searched and computers seized.

Jafarov, who was beaten up in April after attending a controversial trial, said today it was “impossible to live and work” in Azerbaijan. He said he and five other journalists would try to make democratic countries aware of what was going on by applying for political asylum in Austria, Canada, Finland and Norway.

The founder of the two papers, Eynulla Fatullayev, was imprisoned in Bayil after being sentenced on 20 April to two and a half years for supposed libel. He may now be convicted of “incitement to terrorism” under article 214 of the criminal code, though his lawyer said he had not yet been interrogated about this. His family received an anonymous phone call on 17 May warning that he would be killed if he continued to take the same positions after he was released.

Two journalists of the daily Mukhalifat, Rovshan Karbili and Yashar Agazade, were also each sentenced to two and half years in prison on 20 May for an article accusing members of President Aliev’s family of corruption.

Miklos Haraszti, the media freedom representative of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), yesterday deplored the crackdown and called on the government to drop all the prosecutions.

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